#Giveaway4Good Week One: Support Charitable Organizations and Win Prizes Every Writer Will Love

#Giveaway4Good Week One: Support Charitable Organizations and Win Prizes Every Writer Will Love

Last year, I started my #Giveaway4Good campaign with little more than faith. Faith in my cheerleading. Faith in this writing community. And faith in our capacity for collective good.

I wanted to see what would happen if we worked together to create some extra light during a time of deep heartache and loss. So, I sent a few emails to my favorite writing organizations and asked for their support. Then I turned it over to you and envisioned our success. Happily, that faith paid off. 

Together, we raised over $24,000 for charitable and literary organizations. You supported local independent bookstores. I gave away prizes. We had some fun, even while muscling through the disappointments of our very little Christmases.

It’s once again Giving Tuesday. The pandemic has thrown us yet another curveball as we head into the holiday season. (Thanks, Omicron!)  Instead, of letting that dim our lights, let’s have some more fun and support our communities one more time.

During each weekly #Giveaway4Good challenge, I’ll ask you to give away some of your time, talent, or treasure. 
Answer my call and you’ll be entered into my weekly drawing for valuable writing-related goodies you won’t want to miss. 

Everyone who enters a weekly drawing will also be entered into a grand-prize drawing designed to support every aspect of your writing life. Don’t believe me?

Check this out: 
 
Grand-prize package: A one-year membership to James River Writers, a 3-pack of webinars from The Crow Collective Online Writing Workshops, one Jane Friedman webinar of your choice, a 10-page manuscript review plus one-hour coaching session with me, and a query letter review by Allison K. Williams.

Holy giveaways, am I right?
 
Here’s this week’s challenge: 

Make a donation to any charity that supports families in need, and you’ll receive one ticket for this week’s drawing. 

Make donations to two different organizations and you’ll receive two tickets for this week’s drawing. 

Make three donations and receive three tickets. 

All tickets will be eligible for the grand-prize drawing.
 
The minimum donation is $10.00; however, I will reward those of you who donate $100 or more with extra tickets and access to a fabulous secret prize drawing. 
 
This week’s prize: $30 gift certificate to New Dominion Bookshop PLUS one copy each of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to BookThe War of ArtGetting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative NonfictionDoodling for WritersThe Best of Brevity (or The Story Cure), The Business of Being a Writer, and a signed copy of My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson.

And yes, you will receive all these books, which makes this over a $150 value! 

Jocelyn Johnson’s breakout short story collection My Monticello has been featured on NPR’s 360 Books to Read and the New York Times. Netflix plans to adapt it into a movie. She’s a hometown hero who has been both my neighbor and yoga buddy. You’ll learn more about Jocelyn during an upcoming interview.
 
New Dominion is the oldest independent bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia. They are a huge supporter of the Charlottesville writing community AND they can deliver anywhere in the United States.
 
If you read my interview with Ashleigh Renard, you know how important supporting your local independent bookstore is to your writing career. 
 
Here’s an added bonus: Make a donation to one of the charities listed below and I’ll give you three tickets for this week’s drawing. (And yes, you can get three additional tickets for each donation you make). 

What do you need to do to receive your ticket? 

    Sign up for my newsletter and then send me an email with a screen shot of your donation. All I need to see is the name of the charity and the amount, nothing else. (The minimum donation to qualify for the drawing is $10). That’s it.
     
    Are you struggling financially

    This giveaway is for everyone, regardless of your circumstances. Send me an email with pictures capturing three random acts of kindness you’ve completed and I’ll enter you in this week’s drawing and the grand-prize drawing. 

    Also (and this goes for everyone), recommend my newsletter to your followers and you can also get an extra ticket for my drawings. Just email me a screenshot of your post

    I’ll draw the first winner on Monday, December 6, 2021, at 7:00 PM EST. Consider this your deadline. The winner will be announced in my December 7th newsletter.

    Because I want us to do the greatest amount of good for our community, I’ll be sending reminders over the next few days. Feel free to delete them if your inbox is overburdened. I won’t be offended.

    If you’re a person who likes to think ahead, here’s a brief overview of the challenges to come.

    • Week two (12/712/13): Earn tickets by donating $10 to your favorite literary organization.
    • Week three (12/1412/20): Earn tickets by purchasing books or gift certificates at an independent bookstore. Bonus tickets will be awarded for books purchased through black-owned bookstores
    • Week four (12/2012/27): Earn tickets by writing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads for your favorite authors and earn a ticket toward one free coaching session with me

    If you’d love to support my #Giveaway4Good but you’re not interested in the prizes. you can send me an email letting me know about your donations and I’ll add them to our totals.

    Ready to scrap a writing project? Read this first.

    Ready to scrap a writing project? Read this first.

    Last Tuesday, Jane Friedman critiqued my website as part of her new series, The Business Clinic. At first, this offer sounded intimidating, but Jane is a dear friend and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to gain her insights, and in the process, help all of you. Plus, I trusted she would make this a positive experience for me and everyone else.  

    I’ve known for a while my website needs some major improvements. Unfortunately, theme customization by a onetime web designer has made those upgrades extremely challenging. On good days, regular updates take up a lot of my time. At its worst, the process makes me lose my cool. Imagine rage cleaning, but with less cleaning and a lot more swearing and a deep desire to throw some furniture.

    While I love swearing, rage designing isn’t something I relish, so I’ve avoided my website’s issues.

    But there comes a point when the work needed to avoid a problem exceeds the work required to fix it. That’s why I chose to participate in Jane’s new program.

    Going through a live critique elicited all the feels you might imagine, from elation about receiving such detailed advice, to overwhelm about that detailed advice, to angst as I discovered some of my site’s deficits along with everyone else.

    Concepts like metadata, SEO, Serpstat, and Google Console whirled through my head as I furiously scribbled notes about data tracking and the large- and small-scale changes I needed to make STAT. Fortunately, I have the resources to hire someone who can assist me with this reboot. But even then, I have to make all the decisions. After transcribing my ten pages of hand-written notes, I had the urge to scrap everything and start fresh.

    On Twitter, I’ve seen a number of NaNoWriMo participants who are also  in scrap-everything mode. They lament the plot holes they can’t cross or the characters who’ve destroyed their entire concept. Some have started entirely new stories, while others have given up.  

    It’s tempting to abandon your work when you’re frustrated and overwhelmed. But trashing your projects is like trashing yourself.

    Instead, what you need to do is pivot.

    According to Merriam Webster, pivot has two definitions. It can mean to turn on—as in she pivoted on her heel. Or it can mean to adapt or improve by adjusting or modifying something (such as a product, service, or strategy).

    Neither definition includes the words scrap, destroy, or abandon.

    What’s required is an adjustment. First, we adjust mentally to the idea of change, then we make the actual changes.

    Discontent helps us prepare for change. While it might be uncomfortable, discontent is actually your ally. When we get frustrated with our websites, suddenly hate our stories, or get bored with a concept, we’re open to doing something else and have a willingness to see things from a new angle.

    From that place of discontent, think of what you actually want. For example, if you’re working through your first NaNoWriMo, word count alone might be your focus. In this case, success might look like writing 50,000 words, even if they’re associated with multiple stories. But maybe you’ve done that before, or perhaps you really want to be a novelist. If that’s the case, your efforts need to be in service of a single story.

    Once you’ve mentally prepared for change and you know what you want, it’s time to turn on your heel.

    But before you shift, make a list of what’s working. Perhaps you have an engaging character, or a strong plot concept. Maybe your voice is captivating or your sentences sing. Place a list of your project’s strengths in an area where you can visit them regularly. More importantly, make them the foundation from which you’ll pivot. 

    Next, look for the small changes you can make. When it comes to storytelling, ask yourself the following questions.

    What if my problematic character did something else?
    What if I wrote the story in a slightly different way?
    What if I kept going and let the story work itself out? 

    Instead of cleaving to a specific genre or certain expectations for your story, let your story tell you what it wants to become. For example, maybe you need to accept that what you thought was comedy noir is actually a romance. A subtle change in your perception might be all that’s required. If you need more, keep characters that are working well and gently modify anything that’s getting in your way.  

    Next, affirm your ability to make these changes. Maybe you never thought you’d write a romance novel, and hell, you don’t even know what they include. But if you end up loving this story, you are a smart, capable, resourceful writer who knows how to read craft books, take classes, join forums, or whatever is needed to birth your story. You have what it takes to be successful.

    Now own your potential by writing some affirmations that remind you of your strengths. Keep them handy and read them regularly. Then reward yourself for every step along the path.

    If you stumble, remind yourself that writing projects, careers, and even websites require numerous shifts, pivots, and course corrections. But there are no failures; there are only iterations. 

    Sometimes we end up in a state of creative emptiness. This is how to replenish your inspiration.

    Sometimes we end up in a state of creative emptiness. This is how to replenish your inspiration.

    Over the past two weeks, I’ve watched the starlings practice their annual murmurations. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, murmurations are the intricate swooping sky dances some birds do when they fly in unison.

    On my early morning walks, I’d hear their squawks swell and then fall into a collective hush as the flock took off. During their air ballet, they’d chirp at each other in what I would imagine was a lot of, listen, listen, listen, fly left, now right, now back to the nest.

    I’d just grown accustomed to their daily routine when the birds left Charlottesville. I felt the ensuing silence in my bones.

    On Sunday, I was still sitting with this absence, when I attended a monthly meeting with a few of my writing peeps. 

    When asked how my writing life was going, I said terrible. It feels like my creativity has flown south, right along with those birds. I show up to my writing desk, but there’s no sense of flow. I struggle to form sentences, then go back and cross them out.

    The source of my creative emptiness is easy to pinpoint. I’m preparing for a big presentation. My calendar is overbooked with work tasks, home projects, and visits with friends. I love everything on my calendar, and yet I’m also aware that busyness has taken my creative energy. Plus, it’s taken two months to settle my house. If I’m honest, I’ve been craving a sense of order and maybe a little rest.

    And I hate resting more than a toddler.

    Creative emptiness and fatigue trigger my “get cracking” tendencies, that part of me that believes worthiness is about getting things done. Right now it’s convinced that warring with my current reality and yelling things at me like get going, pushpushpush and get this shit done! will help me complete my project. So far, working harder hasn’t worked.

    Have you ever felt like this?

    I’ve learned my “get cracking” isn’t an ally when it comes to creative emptiness. Instead, I need to pause and wait for further instructions from my place of deepest knowing. 

    Truly listening requires a sense of inner stillness and an openness to what is. My messages and insights come from a variety of different sources, including meditation, journaling, cards from my Osho Zen Tarot deck, or signs from nature like murmurations.

    Yesterday, as I worked to listen, I drew the following card from my Osho Zen deck.  

    Here’s part of this card’s message: “The truth of your own deepest being is trying to show you where to go right now, and when this card appears it means you can trust the inner guidance you’re being given.”

    After drawing this card, I did a short breath meditation then wrote what do you want me to know?  in my journal.  My inner knowing responded with relax, be patient, things will be different after next week. Your flow will return.

    Meditation can prepare you to listen whether you’re in a slump or sailing through your NaNoWriMo goals. Periods of stillness can help you discover what your characters want or where your story needs to go.

    But paying attention isn’t enough. How we listen matters.

    Many of us only stop to listen when we’re uncomfortable. Operating from a place of fear or melancholy, we clench our fists and beg for someone or something to ease our misery. But creativity arises from openness. As Taisen Deshimaru says, “Keep your hands open, and all the sands of the desert can pass through them. Close them, and all you can feel is a bit of grit.

    There are many ways to open clenched fists. 

    This past weekend I also attended an outdoor dinner hosted by a local writer. Fifteen of us watched the sun set behind her house, then ate chili as the stars twinkled overhead. Later, we gathered around her bonfire to talk about our writing lives. Someone who’d also been experiencing creative emptiness mentioned Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, a collection of short essays on life’s ordinary happy moments.

    Here’s a brief excerpt from one of his essays. 

    “A cup of coffee from a well-shaped cup. A fly, its wings hauling all the light in the room, landing on the porcelain handle as if to say, “Notice the precise flare of this handle, as though designed for the romance between the thumb and index finger that holding a cup can be.”

    The creatively empty writer shared that reading Rose’s book helped her pay attention to the thousands of small romances happening in her own life. Anticipating a daily delight is filling her creative tank and making her fallow time more pleasant. 

    My friend’s story made the drawing of this card feel inevitable. 

    My Osho Zen guidebook has this to say about the Sharing card. “When you draw this card, it suggests you too are in a situation where you have an opportunity to share your love, your joy, and your laughter.”

    In other words, focus on your abundance and delight. This is great advice whether you’re feeling stuck or making your word count. 

    Last night’s delight was the crescent moon slung below the north star. Today, it was the feeling of the warm air after several chilly days. 

    Showing up to your writing desk is yet another way to listen. Five minutes is enough. Write one sentence, or even a word. Open yourself to your muse and her epiphanies. Then say thank you for what you’re able to complete. Don’t worry about outcomes. 

    When you’re done, return to the rest of your life. Share your love, your joy, and your laughter with the world.

    When starlings begin their murmuration practice, they establish a home base, fly practice runs, and then return to the safety of a designated tree. There are pauses between each and every flight. As I think of their aerial ballets, I think their beauty stems from the pauses, between each flight. They’re in the air, and then they’re gone. Sometimes creativity behaves the same way. And yet, like the starlings it always returns to us. 

    Whether you’re happily churning out pages, or feeling stuck like me, know that our writing lives are filled with ebbs and flows. This is how creativity works. That means there’s no failure and no wrong place to be. If you’re feeling productive, ride that wave. If you’re running on empty, it just means your deepest knowing is calling to you. 

    Writing strategies are great, but if you want to make real progress, you need this.

    Writing strategies are great, but if you want to make real progress, you need this.

    Once upon a time, I wanted to be the coolest sister-in-law in the world.

    My first husband was sixteen when his baby brother was born. We took him for overnights, attended baseball and soccer games, and offered homework help. In the beginning, all it took to be the coolest was a little candy, a forbidden-yet-not-too-age-inappropriate movie, and some fort-building skills. But as my brother-in-law got older, remaining the coolest was a challenge.

    In the early aughts, we attended a summer outing at Kings Island amusement park along with several male relatives. After a morning with roller coaster rides, we headed for the water park.

    After a few waterslides, we encountered something called The Retro Flow Rider. Imagine a concrete basin lined with a dozen fire hoses that simulate surfable ocean waves.

    Everyone wanted to try this exciting new ride, and as the coolest sister-in-law in the world, I couldn’t refuse. That day, it seemed like the entire park waited along The Retro Flow Rider fence, ready to watch us catch some tasty waves or laugh when we fell.

    With each step forward I imagined and reimagined my impending wipeout, from the feel of the board giving way to the disappointing “Awe, dude!” the crowd yelled as I slid into the exit bay.

    When it was my turn, a tanned eighteen-year-old surfer dude thrust a boogie board at me, then fired off instructions I barely heard above the roaring hoses. My fifteen-year-old brother-in-law and all my male relatives cheered from the slide lines. I timidly stepped into the rushing water, placed the board under me, popped up for the briefest of seconds then slammed into the surprisingly rough concrete and skidded to a halt. As I exited the ride, I tried to ignore the angry scrape blossoming up my right side.

    The Retro Flow Rider taught me two important lessons: coolness is overrated, and watch what you imagine.

    Compared to the skydiving and rope-free rock climbs I’d completed in my twenties, The Retro Flow Rider should’ve been easy.

    There was one key difference between those experiences. When skydiving and rock climbing, I always believed in and imagined my unwavering success. That unwavering belief has also helped me complete countless manuscript drafts.

    Yesterday was the first day of NaNoWriMo. While there are a ton of strategies you can employ, they’ll be useless if you don’t believe in yourself.

    Belief has three components.

    First, you must envision your success. Mentally rehearse yourself writing the words the end. Imagine your smile when you reach your fifty thousandth word. Write a congratulations letter to yourself on Future Me then schedule its early December delivery. Every day, multiple times per day, say fifty thousand words.

    After you’ve envisioned your success, attend to your fears.

    During my skydiving days, I asked a guy with over three thousand jumps if he still got nervous before he skydived. He tugged on the macrame cross he always wore, then said, “The day I’m not afraid is the day I don’t jump.”

    Fear made him respect the activity—and himself—enough to show the utmost care and preparation.

    Fear is the body’s way of readying itself for action, whether that’s running from a tiger or acing an exam. Instead of seeing fear as the harbinger of failure, thank your body for seeing this work as important enough to prepare for action.

    Consider a mantra like this: Thank you for reminding me that my writing life is important and that my goal is asking for my attention. 

    That leads to the final aspect of belief—having the confidence to act as if. Show up to your writing desk. Write some words. If you begin to judge them, remember NaNoWriMo, like all goals, is about progress, not perfection. It’s about being 20,000, 30,000, or even 50,000 words closer to writing the end. That’s it.

    If you’re not participating in NaNoWriMo, think about the goal you’re currently working on. Are you imagining success or rehearsing a wipeout?

     

    Considering NaNoWriMo? Here’s what you need to know before making a commitment.

    Considering NaNoWriMo? Here’s what you need to know before making a commitment.

    On Sunday fall finally arrived.

    Goodbye sixty-degree mornings and balmy afternoons.  
     
    Hello dark, cold mornings, colorful leaves, and a return of my ugly sweaters. 

    My favorite ugly sweater is almost fifteen years old. The worn, faded fabric is nubbly with pills. The elbows are worn through. Wearing it makes me look like a bag lady, but I don’t care. In this sweater, I’ve written published essays and book drafts.
     
    Ugly sweaters are probably my favorite part of fall. 

    They’re a sign of productivity and perseverance—something many writers are preparing to channel as they take on one of the year’s biggest writing challenge: NaNoWriMo.
     
    For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel (or memoir) draft during the month of November. 
     
    That’s 7,142 words per week or 1,666 words per day. 
     
    In 2006, NaNoWriMo became an official nonprofit. If you sign up for the challenge on their site they’ll share their writing resources with you. They can even help you join an official NaNoWriMo writing group. 
     
    Three years ago, I NaNoWriMo’d my way to the first draft of my memoir, How Not to Die. It was thrilling to discover I could indeed write 50,000 words over the course of a month, and that some of those words weren’t half bad. 
     
    So how do you decide whether to NaNoWriMo? 
     
    NaNoWriMo is great for completing first drafts of new projects. While you can NaNoWriMo your way through revisions, this can be more challenging because revision is an unpredictable beast that can leave you staring at a single sentence for hours. That musing time is an essential part of the revision process, but it can quickly eat into your word count. 
     
    Throughout November, I’ll use this newsletter to share tips that can help you churn out your weekly goals.  
     
    For now, I’d like to take you through my NaNoWriMo decision-making process. 
     
    Signs you’re ready to NaNoWriMo: 

    • You’re prepared to start a new project.
    • You can dedicate at least one to two hours per day toward this goal, or you can schedule a few all-day writing sessions.
    • You have a solid outline (if you’re a plotter) or you’re ready to writewritewrite your way to a quick and dirty draft.
    • You value progress over perfection.

    If this is you, recruit a few pals and prepare to NaNoWriMo. 

    If you’re on the fence, focusing on revision, or not yet working on a project, you can still create a modified NaNoWriMo goal that deepens your writing practice.

    Here’s what that might look like: 
     

    • New Writer goal: Part of claiming or reclaiming a writing practice is developing your creative discipline and stamina. If you’re a new writer, or you’re interested in reclaiming your writing habit, setting a daily goal of even one hundred words, or writing for five minutes per day, can help you develop a consistent practice.
    • Busy Person Goal: Maybe you are working on a project, but don’t have oodles of time to devote to your writing life. Could you devote 10 or 20 minutes per day, five days per week? Or could you set a more modest goal, like drafting 10,000 words? 
    • Revision Goal: If you’re working through revisions, establish a November goal that allows for some musing time. This could include revising an act of your book or selecting a 10,000-word excerpt to focus on. You could even follow Allison Williams’s advice from Seven Drafts and retype your manuscript. 


    Participating in a full or modified NaNoWriMo can build camaraderie with other writers working in the deadline trenches. Commiserating, celebrating, and swapping ideas with your fellow NaNoWriMo participants can increase your accountability, and for some people, your productivity. 

    But now is not always the best time to set a formidable goal. 

    Here are a few reasons to avoid NaNoWriMo: 

    • Perfection is your kryptonite: If failure to come up with the perfect word causes paralysis, NaNoWriMo will amplify these feelings. This could stifle your overall progress and tank your motivation. A stifled perfectionist is likely to feel devastated if that 50,000-word goal isn’t achieved. 
    • Spending a month in a competitive win/lose environment isn’t your jam: Some people thrive in competitive environments, others wilt. If losing or getting behind crushes your motivation or causes you to fall into toxic comparison, steer clear of this event—or at least participate in a smaller, unofficial version.  
    • You’re hunting for a rainbow unicorn: Some writers mistakenly believe they’ll blast out a 50,000-word novel, query in January, and sign a six-figure book deal by Groundhog Day. Let me burst that unicorn bubble. Drafts created during NaNoWriMo are largely terrible, first takes on a story. Many of these drafts are abandoned soon after the event ends. The best ones serve as an outline for a future, well-written draft that will take months to perfect. Bottom line: agents don’t want to see your NaNoWriMo draft. If you send it anyway, they’ll likely ghost you. 
    • Your stories take longer to bake: Completing a 50,000-word story in thirty days is a daunting task for some and completely unrealistic for others. I know writers, like Bret Anthony Johnston, who can’t write a single word until they’ve completely figured out the story in their heads. It once took Bret ten years to understand a story, but the end result was an award winner. If you’re a slow baker, NanNoWriMo probably isn’t for you.
    • Your November is already booked: If you already have extensive holiday plans or intense work deadlines signing up for NaNoWriMo could easily become one more thing on your to-do list. This can lead to resentments that turn you into an asshole. Life is short. Be kind to others and yourself. If the month is already booked, skip NaNoWriMo
    • Your body calls for rest: Some people see fall as a time of heightened productivity after a restful summer. But other bodies are called to more seasonal patterns. The latter months of fall are a time of darkness, stillness, and reflection. If your body wants to fall into this rhythm, let it. You can NaNoWriMo during your more productive season. 


    So,
     are you ready to NaNoWriMo? 
     
    If you’re ready commit, are you all in, or would a modified goal better suit your style? 
     
    Or should you sit this one out?
     
    Send me an email with your decision. I’d love to hear from you. 
     
    And, I’d also love to hear about your favorite ugly clothing item. Send me a description, or better yet, a picture. If I hear from enough of you, my ugly sweater might make an appearance in next week’s newsletter. 

    Want a vibrant writing life? Find out how Athena Dixon has used personal definitions of success and a dynamic author platform to achieve her publishing goals.

    Want a vibrant writing life? Find out how Athena Dixon has used personal definitions of success and a dynamic author platform to achieve her publishing goals.

    When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut president writer.

     

    Leading the free world from space had a certain appeal.

     

    I mean, who doesn’t want to ride on a rocket ship, sign bills into law from a floating desk, or use the sun rising over the earth as story inspiration?

     

    While my love affair with space continues, time, motion sickness, and an aversion to politics led me to scrap my president/astronaut ambitions so I could follow my true calling.

     

    The beginning of my writing career was a bit like that early dream. I wanted to write all the things in all the genres. First, I studied poetry, then fiction. After a while, I added courses in creative nonfiction.  

     

    Like most writers, finding time for my passion projects is my biggest struggle—especially when a significant portion of my day goes towards activities that pay the bills.

    Last weekend I attended the James River Writers Conference with other writers who face similar challenges. Some were working on novels and essays while taking courses in poetry. Others were editing current works in progress while conducting research for the next manuscript on their agenda. We commiserated over our time constraints and traded tips on managing multiple projects and staying organized and inspired.

     

    These people are truly my tribe. The same is true for my next interviewee, Athena Dixon.

     

    I met Athena in late 2018 through a mutual friend who was starting a memoir collective. When we met, Athena was the editor-in-chief for Linden Avenue Literary Journal and author of the poetry chapbook No God in This Room (Argus House Press, 2017) as well as a regular presenter at writing conferences like HippoCamp and Muse and the Marketplace.

     

    A Pushcart nominee and fellow for several prestigious organizations including Callaloo, and V.O.N.A., Athena is a modern-day renaissance woman who is multi-talented, curious, and prolific. Within six months of our meeting, her essay The Incredible Shrinking Woman was published by Gay Mag, the literary magazine Roxane Gay runs through Medium. This essay became the title for the essay collection Athena published with Split/Lip Press in 2020.

     

    She accomplished all of this in the spare hours between her demanding government job and sleep. Part of her mission is helping writers establish a work and writing-life balance that includes realistic expectations and individual definitions for success.

     

    I’d deeply grateful Athena made time for this interview.  

     

    In addition to being active on social media, your platform includes publications in literary journals, speaking engagements at writing conferences like AWP, HippoCamp, and The Muse and the Marketplace, being the founder of the Linden Literary journal, and co-host of the New Books in Poetry Podcast via the New Books Network. What parts of your platform do you find to be most meaningful?

     

    I’m a bit split. For quite a long time, the center of my platform was Linden Avenue. The literary journal was my passion project for nearly nine years. It opened so many doors and created so many opportunities that I don’t think I’d have a good segment of my current platform had it not existed.

     

    The offshoot of that, however, is the panel and conference platform I continue to build. It’s actually a surprise I’ve done so many. Public speaking frightens me, but being willing to step out of my comfort zone and accept these opportunities has had twofold benefits. First, presenting gives me a confidence I can carry into other areas of my life. Second, speaking at conferences helps me continue to build that platform by introducing me to creatives whose skill sets complement mine.

     

    This is an excellent point, Athena. Presenting is a great networking tool. You never know what collaborations it might lead to or how someone else’s work might inspire or grow your own. 

     

    You began your career as a poet and published your chapbook No God in This Room through Argus House in 2017. Some of my readers are poets. They wonder if an author platform is something they should work to build. What advice do you have for them?

     

    I’m a very big believer in building an organic creative community. However, the development of this community shouldn’t occur just for the sake of your proposal or queries or to demonstrate something to agents and publishing houses. It should be something you cultivate because you care about the craft and are enthusiastic about the writers in your community.

     

    That being said, there is no doubt you need to build an audience and a platform of some measure to give your book the best chance at success, but how you go about that and how you maintain that platform are most important. Personally, I would rather connect with 1,000 engaged people versus having 10,000 followers. If you put out the same kind of support to other creatives that you expect back, the ripple effect of those people and their extended communities can be amazing.

     

    I highly suggest finding a platform in which you are most comfortable because that will shine through in how you engage with not only the medium but also the community you build there.

     

    This is excellent advice, Athena. Allison K. Williams is also a proponent of engagement over numbers when it comes to social media. In fact, I’ve heard this is what publishers now value.

     

    We’ve talked about how platform is important for creative nonfiction writers. What role did your platform play when promoting The Incredible Shrinking Woman?

     

    My platform was invaluable when the book debuted. We were about six months into the pandemic, and at that point, there was zero possibility of doing any face-to-face promotion of the book. However, those same creatives I’d admired and supported over the years returned that support and love. That community inserted my name into conversations with people I’d never met and helped me set up a virtual book tour, readings, panels, and interviews.

     

    Outside of those very practical promotional opportunities, the platform I built also championed my book because they’ve seen me as a person. I am wholly against being a brand or presenting a polished front. I can’t expect to write personal essays, but only open up about struggles, fears, and doubts when I want to promote something.

     

    I think people are willing to read and engage with my work because I am a person who writes and not just a writer. I think that ties back to building an organic community. I may not have an intimate connection with all the people I encounter on social media, but I’m fairly certain most of them support me because there is something kindred and human between us.

     

    You were a 2017 Callaloo fellow, a V.O.N.A. fellow, and a Tin House Workshop attendee on more than one occasion. What role do fellowships, workshops, and writing conferences play in your platform? Should writers make these events part of their platform strategy? Have you found they’re more helpful for some genres than others?

     

    Recognizing that being able to attend these events is a privilege, I encourage writers to at least try attending workshops and conferences or applying for residencies and fellowships. While there are obstacles to attending, and at times they can be an echo chamber, there is such potential to meet and network with other creatives. Several people I met at these events were readers of my manuscript before I submitted it for publication. Others I join in writing sprints. Some have referred me for opportunities and clients, and I’ve done the same for them.

     

    The intimate connections you make are not only important for your own platform building, but they can become invaluable to you as an individual.  Networking and engagement aren’t always effective on a large scale. Sometimes, it comes down to a couple of people helping guide each other and using their platforms to open doors for each other.

     

    I’ve attended conferences, fellowships, and residencies as both a poet and an essayist, and I can’t really say one is more valuable than the other, but I will say you have to go into them with realistic expectations. Not all conversations and connections you make are going to be long lasting. Nurture those creatives who return the same energy after you’ve returned home.

     

    Networking is such a crucial part of platform building. Conferences, residencies, and fellowships create concentrated opportunities for writers to get to know one another and that can lead to powerful synergistic relationships and collaborations. But yes, it’s vital to stay realistic. While I know writers who’ve met agents who went on to represent them while attending writing conferences, I’ve also known writers who met with one invested beta reader. I consider both experiences success stories.

     

    Online, the advice about platform is always moremoremore—as in be in more places, strive for more impressive statistics, and clamor for more audience engagement. At the 2021 HippoCamp Conference, you spoke of the importance of finding a balance between writing, work, and life, and encourage writers to get clear about their individual visions for success. That’s important because not every writer dreams of being a New York Times Bestseller, nor does every writer have unlimited time to work on their platform. What does success look like for you? How will you know when your projects have achieved their goals?

     

    Defining success on your own terms is something I recommend for anyone sending their work out into the world. It’s easy to get caught up in the success of others and then to compare your accomplishments to what you see on social media or what’s deemed as a successful writing career.

     

    Success for me is being able to have my work read by a group of actively engaged readers and supporters. Instead of worrying about the numbers, I’m interested in how people listen and connect with what I’ve shared. When The Incredible Shrinking Woman debuted, I had very reasonable sales numbers in mind. As long as I hit that number, I was happy. The book surpassed that goal, so now every additional sale is icing on the cake.

     

    For me, success is also being able to supplement my income through not only writing but also editing and speaking so I can one day transition out of my day job. When I was younger, I’d been convinced I wanted to be a full-time writer, but as I gained experience in editing and speaking, I found that I was happier doing a combination of all three. Once I determined my most desirable creative life, I set a very specific set of financial goals I needed to make between the three creative lanes in order to be comfortable and happy when transitioning into that life full-time.  

     

    The final part of my success is becoming more confident in my writing voice and also understanding I have advice and experiences to share.

      

    We can find you on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Do you have a favorite social media platform? Are there any you’ll never join or that don’t feel natural to you?

     

    I genuinely enjoy Instagram. It’s the one social media app where I am most comfortable. I’ve found a way of balancing building a community, promoting my literary pursuits, and documenting my personal life in one account. For me, Instagram is the best of Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr all rolled into one. On Instagram, I’m able to network as I would on Twitter, promote as I would on Facebook, and use the account as a bit of escapism by engaging with fandom, interior design, and entertainment users as I would on Tumblr.

     

    What are you reading?

     

    I’m currently reading Before the Earth Devours Us by Esteban Rodríguez. It’s a beautiful essay collection that debuted from Split/Lip Press at the end of September. I’m also working through my foundational books for the year. I decided to re-read 12 of my favorites in preparation for continuing work on my current manuscript. Some of those include Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurtson, and Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.

     

    Wow! The description for Before the Earth Devours Us is amazing. I’ve been so impressed with the Split/Lip titles I’ve read. I’m adding this one to my reading list. And, I can’t wait to see how the influence of your foundational books shows up in your next book.

     

    What’s next for you?

     

    I’m really focused on finishing my new collection of essays. I’ll be taking part in the second book residency through Tin House this October to continue work on the book. I’m excited to see where the manuscript leads me. The new collection includes more research and looking outward in comparison to The Incredible Shrinking Woman. I’ve enjoyed writing it so far because it’s really forcing me to make connections to the larger world, which pushes past my writing comfort zone.

     

    You can follow Athena online by clicking on the following links: 

     
    Athena, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with all of us. I absolutely love your wise counsel on how to manage our writing lives. I can’t wait to read your next book!  

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    Looking for alternatives to traditional publishing? Check out what She Writes Press helped Corie Adjmi accomplish.

    Looking for alternatives to traditional publishing? Check out what She Writes Press helped Corie Adjmi accomplish.

    A few weeks ago, Facebook sent a reminder about my 2010 hike up Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. The hike was a backup plan. We were supposed to go white water rafting, but a recent hurricane made the rivers too dangerous for boating. So up the mountain we went.

    The climb included two rope sections and ten vertical ladders.

    Standing atop the 5,956-foot summit, I felt so strong and capable. It was like I’d arrived at some pinnacle where life would always and forever be wonderful. 

     
    For a long time, I believed traditionally publishing a book would be another form of arrival. In my dreams, nailing a big-five deal meant a literary happily ever after filled with fame, fortune, and a slew of bestsellers.

    Professors touted traditional publishing as the only viable option a real writer would consider. 

    Snide comments about vanity presses and “less talented” self-published authors reinforced these beliefs.

    Back in 2010, most hybrid publishers were vanity presses who charged large sums of money to would-be authors eager to see their name in print. Many didn’t quality-check their submissions. If you had the funds, your book was added to their print cycle. Sadly, there are still vanity presses that operate under this model.  

    I’ve also encountered writers more interested in calling themselves authors than taking the time to ensure the quality of their books.

    But the world of publishing has changed so much in the past eleven years. 

    I’ve spent time with writers whose big-five deals were a dream come true and others who discovered it wasn’t the peak experience they’d hoped for.

    I’ve also known writers who launched great careers with books published by small presses and indie authors who’ve outsold books on the New York Times Bestsellers list. 

    Then there are the authors who’ve achieved their literary dreams by publishing through reputable hybrid publishers like She Writes Press. 

    This Sunday, I’ll query my book with an agent during the James River Writer’s Conference. Additional queries will soon go out to more agents. While I’m currently pursuing the traditional publishing path, authors like Corie Adjm reveal that success comes in many forms. To make my publishing dreams a reality, I need to keep my options open. 

    Corie was initially one of my clients. By the time we met, her fiction and short stories had been published in numerous literary magazines and won prestigious awards. When we worked together, her goal was to attract a traditional publisher, but along the way, she changed her mind.

    Her first book Life and Other Short Comings was published in 2020 through She Writes Press. This short story collection was a 2020 winner of the International Book Award, an American Fiction Award, and an IBPA: Ben Franklin Award. She’s been interviewed in Publishers WeeklyBook Club Chat, and The Hollywood Times, which called her book a “travel must-read.” 

    Over the last eighteen months, I’ve delighted in seeing pictures of her book on independent bookstore shelves and celebrated the publication doors that have opened for her.

    I’m deeply grateful Corie made time for this interview.  

    When we first met, you were seeking an agent and looking for a traditional publisher. Eventually, you decided to publish your award-winning short story collection Life and Other Short Comings through She Writes Press. What made you decide to work with a hybrid publisher?

    Before we met, I had an agent and things just didn’t work out with her. I never thought that would happen. I was so grateful to have an agent at all, plus I’m pretty easy-going, but we didn’t work in the same way and the relationship proved too frustrating for me to continue. When I decided to move on, I thought the next step was to find another, more compatible agent. While on that journey, I discovered She Writes Press (SWP). I loved the idea of hybrid publishing and having more control over the destiny of my book, so I submitted my manuscript. When I received Track 1, Ready to Go! as a response to my submission I knew I was where I needed to be.

     

    For a long time, hybrid publishers have gotten a bad rep. And there are certainly some to avoid, but I’ve always heard good things about She Writes Press. Can you tell us about your experience with SWP?

     

    When I submitted Life and Other Shortcomings, SWP had just been awarded Indie Publisher of the Year. Brooke Warner, She Writes Press’s editor, is a powerhouse. I loved her thoughts on writing, the publishing industry, and her Ted Talk on greenlighting your book.

    There is a sisterhood at SWP that creates an instant community. The comradery and support have been an added bonus. Both Brooke Warner and Lauren Wise, my project manager, are super professional and good at what they do. They’re responsive and straightforward—qualities that are important to me.

     

    Top-notch editors and project managers are a huge asset when working with a publishing house. Not everyone gets them both. It sounds like you’ve definitely found the right home for your book.

    As a fiction writer, what role does your author platform play in your writing life? What parts of your platform led to book sales?

    Lisa, you are the one who taught me about being a good literary citizen. I’d never heard the term before. When I first joined Instagram, it was a whole new world. I didn’t know what to share, so I engaged slowly by liking other people’s posts. Occasionally, I’d comment, but mostly I studied other authors.

     It took a while for me to understand that if I posted the image of a book I was reading and tagged the author, I wasn’t bothering them. In fact, they appreciated the added attention.

    Authors must protect their time so that they have the energy to write. That means I barely post on Facebook or Twitter. On those platforms, I amplify the voices I admire and support other writer by liking posts and retweeting important messages.

    Instagram is the platform I enjoy most. I’ve come to see how much I appreciate content from specific people I follow. Some make me laugh. Others provide information or they’re educational. Developing an Instagram relationship is kind of like dating or making a new friend. First, you like a post or two. Then you comment. Soon you’re in a conversation. Over time, you discover what that person stands for or believes. Then you support one another on your writing journeys, see family photos, and learn where they go and what they read.

    In the lead-up to the launch of Life and Other Shortcomings I used my Instagram account to reach readers and ask people to support me and my book. And they did—often in the form of preorders! A few days after Life and Other Shortcomings was published, Brooke reported that my preorders had dwindled my inventory so much they had to print more books.

     

    Wow, Corie, that is a huge success story! And yay for literary citizenship! It reminds me of what Ashleigh Renard, author of the memoir Swing, said about the importance of educating your audience about presales. She also did a lot of literary citizenship in the years leading up to her book launch. This is just another example of why it’s so important to help other writers.

    You’re part of a large Jewish community, and many—if not all—of the characters in Life and Other Short Comings are Jewish women. What role did this community play in your author platform and in your book launch?

    Three out of four of my grandparents were from Aleppo, Syria. I grew up in New Orleans, but I now live amongst the Syrian Jews in New York. This community was extremely supportive. Historically, we haven’t been a community of writers, and I think people felt a sense of pride with the publication of Life and Other Shortcomings. There was a collective we did it! People in this community were so curious and had so many questions. What did she write? Is it any good? Am I in it? Are we in it? Their excitement made the launch special, lively, and thrilling.

     

    I love hearing about how the Syrian Jewish community supported you through the launch. While it’s great to have a large audience, I would imagine those personal connections made it even more meaningful.

    Life and Other Short Comings explores the various roles women play and the challenges they face. When writing your book, did you consider the conversations it would be a part of?

    No, none of that was in my mind while I wrote. I was totally focused on one thing—writing something good. After compiling the stories, I saw how themes within the collection like domestic abuse, patriarchy, gaslighting, infidelity, and cultural ideas around female aging were part of a larger discussion around women’s empowerment. These are the conversations I want to have, the ones I find interesting and pertinent. When you write about what is important to you, most likely it will be important to others. I think this is why Life and Other Shortcomings has turned out to be a great conversation starter and Book Club Pick.

     

    After reading your book, I’m not surprised it’s a Book Club Pick. There are so many things to think about. I also love how you’ve kept the conversation going through essays you’ve written, such as “I Became a Doula So I Could Be at My Grandchild’s Birth During Covid,” and “I Feel Guilty Writing About Flawed Jewish Characters.

    Your second book, The Marriage Box, will be published by SWP on August 2, 2022. Is this book geared toward the same audience as Life and Other Shortcomings or are you targeting a different set of readers?

    Readers who liked Life and Other Shortcomings will also enjoy The Marriage Box. Life and Other Shortcomings contains Jewish characters, but I never specifically mention the Syrian Jewish community. Readers interested in learning about different lifestyles, and those who want to be immersed in a foreign world, will appreciate The Marriage Box. They will experience the Syrian Jewish community’s varied traditions, not to mention, the book’s eccentric, wonderful, and maddening characters. Both Life and Other Shortcomings and The Marriage Box are alike in tone. Both are about relationships and use humor to explore themes around marriage, family, friendship, tradition, and patriarchy.

     

    I love that your new book gives us an insider’s view of the Syrian Jewish Community and its culture. It gives you a chance to celebrate your heritage and the people who supported you while also giving all of us a broader view of the people who come from Syria—an area that’s frequently in the news, but largely talked about in a singular way.

    What lessons did you learn as a debut author that will inform your next book launch?

    What works differs from one author to another. I’ve learned to let go and accept that I can’t be good at everything. There are so many things one can do to promote a book: write and place essays in prestigious magazines, create a weekly newsletter, start a podcast, share daily Instagram posts, reels, and stories, engage on Twitter and Facebook, author weekly blog posts, build a community and be a good literary citizen, do radio, TV, and written interviews, and participate in live book talks. And so much more!! Just writing that list is exhausting. I’m amazed by writers who seem to be able to do it all. I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea of working hard and just doing what I can.

     

    Phew! That list is now swirling through my head. I’m so glad you’ve come to a place where you can be kind to yourself and accept your limitations. Good enough is good enough. And I think the key for all of us is to figure out how to work smarter rather than harder by focusing on our skills and what we find important. It sounds like you’re accomplishing that goal.

    What advice do you have for fiction writers when it comes to their author platforms?

    Authenticity. I decide who to follow on Instagram by that factor alone. If the site is honest, I’m in. Just like in real life, I want to be around people who aren’t afraid to show their shortcomings, reveal their dreams, and share their hopes. I’m no author platform maven, but if you stop reading this interview for a minute and follow me on Instagram, maybe I could become one. In the meantime, be real. Show up. Do your best and learn from others. Be kind, genuine, and offer something—a poignant quote, a delicious recipe, an essay you’ve published— and your platform will grow.

     

    What are you reading?

    Short Stories: Big Time by Jen Spyra. We are on a panel together at a Jewish Community Center event in Cherry Hill, NJ in November.

    Fiction: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

    Non-fiction:  Israel by Noa Tishby

     

    What a fabulous list! BTW, you’re the second person today who’s mentioned Noa Tishby’s book. I’m adding it to my reading list.

    What’s next for you?

    The Marriage Box will be published in August 2022, so I have a lot of work to do between now and then. I’ll continue to write a monthly newsletter, participate in book talks and interviews, show up on Instagram, and write essays. My biggest upcoming challenge is creating video content, which I’ve discovered is a great way to connect with readers. I recently attended Ashleigh Renard’s webinar on creating video content. We all have a lot we can learn from her. And then, of course, I plan on publishing another novel. This one’s a family drama that’s a bit of a thriller.

     

     

     

     

     

    Ashleigh Renard rehabbed not just a shabby marriage but our views of what indie authors can do. Learn the secrets of her success.

    Ashleigh Renard rehabbed not just a shabby marriage but our views of what indie authors can do. Learn the secrets of her success.

    I first heard of Ashleigh Renard through a Facebook writing group I belong to. Every few days writers said things like “OMG I can’t wait to read Ashleigh’s new book,” or “Thank you Ashleigh for that great advice,” or “Because of Ashleigh I had this success.”

    I soon discovered this figure-skating-coach-turned-writer is an Instagram maverick and author platform coach who had partnered with Allison K. Williams to run the Writer’s Bridge, a biweekly free-to-all platform chat. Coaching writers was one way she prepared to launch her memoir Swing.

    I had the pleasure of meeting Ashleigh at the 2021 HippoCamp conference and soon discovered she’s as delightful as the posts written about her.

    If you haven’t read her memoir, Swing is equal parts steamy look at swingers who attend sex clubs and story of a hard-working mom searching for the love and life she always wanted yet never believed she deserved. It’s led to several conversations between the hubby and me about the growth edges in our own marriage, which like most relationships, is a continual work in progress.

    While readers rave about Swing, writers are enamored with her publishing story. In 2020, Ashleigh landed an agent and a book deal. But a lack of momentum led her to scrap that plan and forge ahead on her own. She started her own imprint, checked off all the indie-publisher boxes, then planned and executed a stellar book launch. To date, Swing has sold over 10,000 copies. Ashleigh is a regular on the podcast circuit who has over 48,000 Instagram followers. She’s successfully sold her book on TikTok, but more importantly, she’s achieved the self-publishing impossible: her book is sold in a brick-and-mortar independent bookstore.

    It’s a great honor to interview Ashleigh as a part of my author-platform series.

    During the first week of your book launch you sold an impressive 5000 books, with over 2000 of those being print copies in the US reported to BookScan. That’s enough to qualify for the New York Times bestsellers list. Those numbers also exceed the total sales most books see across their lifetime. What unique strategies did you use to create such a successful launch?

     Hitting those first-week numbers was exciting. Choosing to publish independently as a debut author, I didn’t have publisher clout or many industry reviews behind me. Sales and reader reactions were my metrics for how the book was being received. I outsold five titles on the NYT paperback nonfiction list that week, which encouraged me that yes, people want to read this book.

    I had been educating my audience on the importance of preorders and supporting independent bookstores for a couple of years. I basically documented my literary citizenship. Anytime I preordered a book from my local indie bookstore I posted about it in my Instagram stories and tagged the author, the bookstore, and often the editor and imprint. At this point, most people I know are eager to make conscious purchasing decisions. By the time my preorders opened, many of my audience members had already started preordering books from their favorite authors.

    My local indie was the exclusive retailer for signed copies. When I announced on my Instagram stories that preorders were open, the bookstore’s website was immediately overwhelmed. Many people messaged me saying they were trying to get a signed book but couldn’t. I reminded them that the book was available at Amazon. They all responded with, “Nope you taught me why I should order from an independent bookstore so I’m going to do it.”

    These are the talking points I repeat over and over for my audience.

    Preorders:

    1. Help publishers determine the investments they’ll make for marketing and publicity of a title.
    2. Strong presales increase the chances bookstores will stock the book.
    3. All preorders count for first-week sales, giving most authors their best chance at hitting a bestseller list.

    Purchases from bookstores don’t just support small business––they benefit authors, too:

    1. Sales from independent bookstores are more heavily weighted on curated bestseller lists (like the NYT and the WSJ) because those customers are thought to be more serious readers. (Snobbish? Maybe. A fact that played into my strategy? Absolutely.)
    2. If many copies of a book move through a brick and mortar store it’s likely one of the employees will like it and give it favorable placement in the store, for example, “cover out” rather than “spine out.”
    3. Or they may choose it as a staff pick. When that happens, the book gets a special display, most likely with a handwritten note from the staff member letting readers know why they should buy this book.
    4. Booksellers and authors share a beautiful reciprocity. Even though publishers bring the book into the world, booksellers see the joy of readers picking it up and experience the special cha-ching of customers opening their wallets to buy a book they’re excited about. They are our feet on the ground who recommend our titles to people in their stores. I asked my local indie if they would be willing to serve as the exclusive retailer for signed copies. They don’t usually stock self-published books because they’ve had poor results with local authors. Luckily, my Instagram stories about their store helped me develop a relationship with one of their managers. She advocated for my book and my ability to promote sales. My discount was set at the industry standard of 55% and my book was returnable, so they agreed. They were a joy to work with and I aimed to be professional and gracious. They dedicated the space and employee hours to help me sign 600 copies in one afternoon, then had staff come in early the next day to package and transport them to the post office so customers would receive them by pub day. A few weeks later, Candace Bushnell’s people contacted the store to see if they would host a live, in-person event, and asked if the owner, by chance, had any ideas for a local author who would be a good conversation partner. Apparently, the bookstore owner couldn’t get my name out of her mouth fast enough. So, my first in-person event as a debut author was interviewing Candace Bushnell. I even bought a pair of Jimmy Choos to celebrate.

     

    What helpful tips! I’ve been telling people to support their indie bookstore for years. Your success demonstrates why this is so important. Thank you for helping me make my point. What part did your platform play in your book launch?

    My social media platform has two parts, the writers I engage with and support through Facebook groups and The Writers’ Bridge biweekly platform Q&A, and my readers, who I’ve attracted through Instagram and TikTok.

     Writers bought my book because they appreciated the support and encouragement I gave to the writing community (and likely because I preordered their book recently). My audience bought the book because they love the advice and perspective I offer on social media.

    This is a great example of how giving back to the communities you care about can give you so much in return. You’ve created several successful video series for your Instagram including How to Keep Monogamy Hot, How to Get Your Kids to Clean the House, and Before You Get a Divorce to name a few. Couples have written to you about how they’re reading Swing together and then having honest conversations about how to build better relationships. Does your author platform enhance or frame the conversation happening within your book?  If not, is there another way your book and platform work together?

    Couples reading my book together is the biggest (and most welcome!) surprise of this whole process. Seeing how my audience responds to my content always informs the next piece I write or the next video I create. The book is an extension of this. When questions come up after couples read the book, I’ll answer via DM (direct message) and often share about the question in my Instagram stories. I then ask my audience to answer questions for me on that topic or vote on what I should focus on next in my advice.

    This sounds like a great way to keep your audience engaged. It seems like you’re an Instagram and TikTok maven. What’s your secret?

     After growing at a rate of 500 followers a year on Instagram, over the past 11 months I’ve averaged 1000 new audience members a week on Instagram and 1000 new followers a day on TikTok.

     I was a figure skating coach and choreographer for over 20 years, so I know better than to take an audience member’s attention for granted. Whether I was trying to impress a judge with my team’s choreography or trying to get 20 teenagers to give me their attention, cooperation, and execution, I needed to get to the point––and quick.

     Now, if you give me 30 seconds, I can make you feel comfortable, give you the feeling we’re on the same team, make you laugh, share information with an original slant, and leave you motivated to take action.

     My years of disarming skeptical adolescents have given me the ability to create content you can share with your spouse without blowback. For this reason, many people share my videos with their partners.

    Getting to the point is such a vital skill for writers to master. Are there any social media platforms you struggle to use?  

    I cannot figure out Snapchat, at all. I don’t get it. But I did figure out how to make ads there, which did very well. Women aged 25-55 who scroll Snapchat are incredibly interested when a video offers insight on rehabbing a shabby marriage. Imagine that.

    What advice do you have for those of us who might be intimidated by the sheer number of posts you create or the sophistication of your videos?

    When I was pushing preorders, I posted three times a day on Instagram. Those posts didn’t do well, so I cut back to about three posts a week and the performance went way up. Sometimes now I only post once a week. I’ve learned that frequency isn’t actually the golden ticket.

    For me, what’s most effective is checking in (posting) on my Instagram stories several times a day. It’s a casual, fun place to workshop ideas or questions for my audience. All replies go to my DMs (direct messages). This makes people more comfortable asking questions or speaking honestly. I also ask my audience for help and advice (Is this thing on my eye a stye? What secret ingredient do you put in your chili? And just today: tell me your favorite cover songs of all time.), which they love to give.

    My videos are usually 30 seconds long and take me about five minutes to film and ten minutes to caption. They may look sophisticated, but I avoid adding audio, transitions, or any effects. I only make videos when an idea pops into my head that’s crystal clear. Doing that three times per week is a snap and then it takes me two minutes to post to IG and TikTok.

     If you want to see how I do it, I’m teaching a class on it for Lounge Writers on September 22.

     When someone is overwhelmed by the idea of making a face-to-camera video I always tell them to start by watching a few Instagram stories and then experimenting with their own.

     

    I love how you authentically engage with your audience. It seems like one of your not-so-secret strategies for success. Personally, it takes me a while to post something to social media. There’s the initial think time, then the drafting time, followed by the technical work of putting things together for platforms like Instagram. How much time do you spend per day on social media? How does that time work for or against your writing time? Do you have any time management secrets we can benefit from?

    I actively work on my social media about four days a week. On those days I spend about four hours on my socials (2 hours on IG, 1.5 hours on TikTok, and 30 minutes on FB).

    Here is the breakdown:

    • Instagram: 1 hour posting and captioning face-to-camera videos for my stories (15 minutes, 4 times a day), 1 hour responding to comments and direct messages (5 minutes, 12 times a day).
    • TikTok: 1 hour on TikTok live (while I am on live the app pushes out my previous videos in a big way. I often have 1k notifications by the time I jump off. Then I spend 30 minutes responding to comments and direct messages.
    • Facebook: 30 minutes responding to comment threads in FB groups.

     You may notice that none of this time above mentions making content or posting (outside of Instagram stories). Posting is quick––I can film and caption a video in 15 minutes or less.

    I save screenshots of my Amazon reviews and have them in a photos album I share with my assistant (super easy since we are both Mac users). She uses the same background each time, picks out the best line(s) from each review, and makes a batch of quote cards with my custom GIFs. She can make a dozen quote cards in about half an hour. She uploads them to a shared album called “Quote Cards – Ready to Post.”

     

    Having an assistant makes you sound so official. Have you had one the entire time, or is she a more recent addition to your team?

    Until recently, I ran all aspects of my business. To encourage preorders, I offered my audiobook for free if readers preordered the print version. Two months before my book launch, I hired my 21-year-old niece, Geena, as an assistant. She manages all those preorder emails and sends out audiobook links to my readers.

    When I’m invited for podcast interviews or brand collaborations, all those inquiries go to Geena. She confirms they’re a good fit and puts them on my calendar. If I’m behind on my inbox, she’ll go through my emails and make me a to do list. She preps my newsletters by customizing the templates in Flodesk (my new email service) by adding my photos and links. I coach writers one-on-one, developing a social media strategy based on their book or WIP. After videos are scripted, practiced, and filmed, Geena does the final edits and (closed) captioning.

    She’s a tremendous help. Working with her forces me to develop some systems and protocols. I’m a bit spontaneous and knowing she is expecting A and B from me before she can complete C helps me prioritize. We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months working out systems that are easy and efficient (and fun). We meet on Zoom Mondays and Fridays, but most of our communication is through shared notes, albums, and reminder lists (all on iPhone/Mac). Having an employee I appreciate has also pushed me to expand my business––I want more income so I can continue to give her raises and bonuses. Currently, I rely on book sales, one-on-one coaching, and one brand partnership for income, but in the next few months I’ll open three new revenue streams.

     

    I can’t wait to see what those revenue streams look like. You’re the co-host of the Writer’s Bridge. Two weeks ago, your partner-in-crime, Allison K. Williams, shared some details about upcoming Writer’s Bridge events. Is there anything you’d like to add?

     Partnering with Allison has been one of the greatest gifts of pandemic––if not my life. I’ve never had a professional partnership where so much is accomplished with so much ease. This photo from HippoCamp by Kerri Tollinger captures it beautifully. I mean, who doesn’t want a partner who’s brilliant, funny, and trusts you completely? I think our Writers’ Bridge participants feel that and it’s contagious. We don’t sugar-coat the amount of work necessary, but we do help people believe they can do it and might even enjoy themselves in the process.

     What’s next for you?

     Three new things in the works:

    1. All my video content will soon be self-hosted on my website. I’m opening a subscription option for singles and couples, with members-only video content and reflection questions.
    2. I am expanding my social media strategy coaching with webinars.
    3. Coming soon: my own podcast/YouTube show

     What are you currently reading?

     A Girl Called Rumi by Ari Honarvar! If you liked The Celestine Prophecy or The Alchemist, you’ll love this book. Don’t miss our event together at Powell’s Books on September 24.

     I’m a huge fan of both The Celestine Prophecy and The Alchemist, so you’ve sold me on Ari’s book.

    You can follow Ashleigh online by clicking on the following links: 

     Ashleigh, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with all of us. I’m so impressed by all you’ve accomplished. I can’t wait to hear more about your podcast and to see what you write next.

    Don’t want to miss the next interview?  Sign up for my newsletter.  

    And while you’re at it, check out my upcoming class Mastering the Scene: From the Basics to the Advanced Scene-Writing Tricks that Captivate Readers and Agents.

    Laura Cathcart Robbins went from rejections to award-winning podcaster, speaker, and writer. With her advice, you can do it too.

    Laura Cathcart Robbins went from rejections to award-winning podcaster, speaker, and writer. With her advice, you can do it too.

    I met Laura Cathcart Robbins in 2019 through a mutual friend. Her essay “I Was The Only Black Person At Elizabeth Gilbert And Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Brave Magic’ Retreat” had recently gone viral. The outpouring of responses from readers led her to create a podcast she was calling The Only One in the Room. The first episodes were being recorded and she was curious to see what might happen with her new venture. 

    Two and a half years later, Laura is a regular contributor to HuffPo where she writes about addiction, recovery, and her experience as a black woman living in America. She’s an accomplished speaker whose essays have been published in The TemperIt’s Over Easy, and Tempest Sobriety, among others. 

    And that podcast she started? Bustle has twice named The Only One in the Room as a top podcast alongside This American Life. Guests have included actors, activists, and authors including Dani Shapiro, Reema Zaman, Kiese Laymon, Amy Bond, and Athena Dixon. You should definitely check out her recent episode with Allison Hong Merrill, whose award-winning memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, comes out next week. 

    I’m deeply grateful Laura took the time away from her busy schedule to speak with me.

     

    Laura, your platform exploded after writing your “Brave Magic” essay. It’s been such a joy to watch it grow. What role have bylines played in your author’s platform?

    I wanted (very badly) to see my byline in The Sun or McSweeney’s, but no matter what I submitted, I still received rejection notifications. I worried that as someone who never graduated from high school and never went to college, (and obviously) never got an MFA, that my style might not be sophisticated enough for all those lovely literary publications I was stalking.  But after submitting one article to Emily McCombs at Huffpo, she told me that she liked my voice and my style and asked me for more.  

    Just before publishing my first article she said, “Make sure you’re ready, because this is a huge platform with millions of readers. Once this goes live your life is going to change.”

    In 2020, my Huffpo article on “Zoom bombings” caught the attention of a PBS producer in Portugal, which resulted in a lovely ten-minute piece on my sobriety during the pandemic.  And in February of this year, another article I wrote for Huffpo caught the attention of a Channel 5 news producer, which resulted in a live interview with me on the subject of interracial relationships.  Some folks at UBS Wealth Management happened to catch that Channel 5 interview and then offered me a contract to speak at their 12,000-person women’s summit this past May. Last week I was interviewed on The Dr. Phil Show after they read my Huffpo article on Critical Race Theory

    Can I just stop say, “You are on fire, my friend! I love seeing how your bright you’re shining right now.”

    Thank you!

    You now have a very successful podcast. How do your podcast and bylines inform your writing?  

    One hundred percent, the platform feeds my writing and vice versa.  My partner, Scott Slaughter, and I try to be very intentional about choosing writing topics and podcast guests who are on-brand for me.  People find the podcast through my published pieces and then submit their stories to me. Many of our guests have opened journalistic doors for me and provided me with writing opportunities.

    At a recent writing conference, I spoke with several writers who are interested in starting a podcast. Do you have advice for them?

    Yes, I think writers have a huge advantage in podcasting because we’re storytellers.  When I’m trying to come up with a story idea for an article or essay, I look for that spark, that magical, inspirational thing that I can build an entire story around. It’s the same when I’m selecting guests for The Only One in The Room.  In the pre-interview, I listen to my guests talk and talk until I hear that one thing, and that’s when I start taking notes. That’s the good stuff. That’s my episode.

    If you’re looking for more specific advice, my friend and fellow writer/author/podcaster Stefanie Wilder Taylor and I are teaching a virtual podcasting class on Saturday, September 18.

    (Readers, if you’re interested in this class, send an email to StefanieWilderTaylor@gmail.com to get all the details.)
     
    Last year you signed with Rebecca Gradinger at Fletcher and Co.  What parts of your platform helped with that process?

    Interestingly enough, Anjali Singh at Ayesha Pande Literature rejected my book proposal in 2016.  But instead of a form letter, she wrote few a paragraphs that changed everything for me.  “You’re a beautiful writer,” she said. 

    “But memoir is the hardest thing to sell, and I can’t sell you because no one knows who you are.  Start a blog, perhaps try some storytelling, start a podcast. Get yourself an elegant, easy-to-navigate website, and make sure everything you do is on there.  Put yourself out there on social media, book speaking gigs, interviews too, if possible.  And most importantly, publish as MANY articles as you can.”

    After Rebecca read my query and the thirty pages I submitted to her in November 2020, she was impressed with my platform. “Keep all this up,” she said.  “The podcast, the articles, the interviews.  This is all very good.”

    Very good indeed!

    Writers are always looking for ways to build their platforms both on and offline. In 2018, you won the L.A. Moth Story Slam. Do you have any advice for writers who’d like to participate in a Moth event? 

    Yes, practice.  For weeks before each Moth event, I practiced the entire story five to six times per day.  I practiced in the mirror. I practiced by myself on Zoom. I practiced in front of my boyfriend and my kids. I recorded my practice sessions on my phone audio recorder and then played those recordings while I was driving.  Also, I chose a story I knew extremely well. That way, if my brain stalled in the middle of my story, I could just pick up and hope no one would be the wiser.

    That sounds like the right amount of practice. And I love the Zoom suggestion! It’s a great way to see how you’re presenting your story visually through facial expressions and body language. 

    You have Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. I love seeing how you’re push-ups are progressing on Insta. Which platform do you feel most comfortable with? Are there any social media platforms you’ll never join? 

     Ayeee.  I’m not comfortable with any social media platforms and if I didn’t HAVE TO scroll or post my platform, I don’t think I would.  But of them all, I am most comfortable with Instagram.  For the podcast, we have someone who handles TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter for us (thank god).

    What one thing would you like writers to know about author platforms?

    I’m still hustling to build my platform, to add published articles, to secure impressive podcast guests.  I know that not every author needs a platform to get published, but I also know that having one helps a lot.

    I would say you’re doing a lot more than hustling. You’re modeling how to successfully grow a platform.  

    What are you currently reading?

    Volunteer Slavery by Jill Nelson – it’s incredible.

    What’s next for you?

    Hopefully a contract with a publisher and then a book to promote! 

    I can’t wait to hear that your book has been sold. 

     
    You can follow Laura online by clicking on the following links: 

    Don’t want to miss the next interview?  Sign up for my newsletter.  

    And while you’re at it, check out my upcoming class Mastering the Scene: From the Basics to the Advanced Scene-Writing Tricks that Captivate Readers and Agents 

     

    To write well, you must commit to multiple drafts. Allison K. William’s new book Seven Drafts will show you how to capitalize on each one.

    To write well, you must commit to multiple drafts. Allison K. William’s new book Seven Drafts will show you how to capitalize on each one.

    Even though it’s September, it’s still toasty in Virginia. As a spring and summer girl, hot weather is my jam. I’ve long seen fall as a major bummer filled with darker days, cooler temperatures, and for a long time, the return of my seasonal depression.

    As I’ve aged and healed, I’ve also come to see fall as a time of color, rest, and gratitude.

    This year I’m psyched about what fall means for my newsletter.

    Over the next few months, I’ll interview platform divas and emerging writers about how they’re managing their author platforms. The list includes writers across all genres so there should be something for everyone. 

     

    The first interview in this series is with Allison K. Williams 

    For the past six months, I’ve told every writer I know to buy Allison’s new book Seven Drafts: How to Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Now you finally can. 

    When I first met Allison at the 2016 HippoCamp Conference, I knew she was someone special. She’s a commanding presenter with an impeccable grasp of her craft who makes writing exciting and accessible.  

    A former circus performer and aerialist (hence her stage presence), Allison has an MFA from Western Michigan. She’s an award-winning playwright, novelist, and guerrilla memoirist who edits the Brevity Blog.  Allison lives in Dubia and hosts writing retreats in fabulous locales like Tuscany. It was an honor and pleasure to speak with her. 

    Allison, you’re a speaker who’s been labeled as “so informative it’s like drinking from a fire hose” and so inspiring participants leave “feeling like they can go punch a dragon.” What role does public speaking play in your platform? 

    As many people know, I was a full-time performer before I was a full-time writer. So personally, speaking fills that need for performing and sharing with an audience that really burns in me. Professionally, I’ve found that public speaking—whether that’s delivering a keynote, teaching a webinar or co-hosting a Writers’ Bridge episode—is the best way to reach a large number of writers and get them on board with what I have to say. Sharing expertise and do-this-now tips for both writing better and selling books is also my service to the community.

    I’m so, so stoked about the publication of Seven Drafts. I know this question is a little like asking which one of your kids is really your favorite, but here goes. Which chapter is your favorite? And if that feels unfair, which one was the most fun to write? 

    Honestly, I love Chapter 4: The Technical Draft! I am so interested in the mechanics of language and sentence structure, and this chapter lets me share tools and tricks that make everyone’s writing better at the sentence level. It’s not a grammar tutorial—I’m discussing how words function to deliver meaning. Why shouldn’t you use “would” and “could” casually? What’s the difference between an intentionally long sentence and a run-on? Discovering these things absolutely rocked my world as a writer (dork alert!) and I hope they’ll help other writers. Because writing is like dancing—yes, you gotta feel it and go with the flow, but a good grounding in technique makes everyone better. 

    I love that chapter too, though I’m also a huge fan of your chapter on the story draft. The exercises in it are so good! What’s the one thing you hope readers of your book learn or understand after reading Seven Drafts

    That you’re not the only one. That for the vast majority of us, writing a book takes five times as long and is ten times as much work as we anticipated, even after reasonably estimating our time and work! But your words are worth that time and work. 

    That’s so true and something all writers need to hear. So, let’s talk a little about platform. Initially, writers build their author platform so they can connect with readers who will one day buy their books. What role will Seven Drafts play in your author platform? Are there any doors this book might open that were previously closed to you? 

    I’d like to do more keynote speaking, and more guest teaching, and I think this book will help. I’ve done all the full-time faculty-ing I care to, but I’d love to be a writer-in-residence, and I definitely need a book out for that to be an option. And it’s a symbol of expertise. One more reason that people can trust my writing advice is that a traditional publisher thought it was good enough to make a book. 

    That’s a great answer. I regularly tell writers to think about the doors they want to open with their books well in advance of their book launch so they can build a platform that makes that vision possible. I can’t wait for your next keynote! 

    I’ve seen your posts on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter. What social media platform are you most comfortable using?

    I go back and forth. I love Instagram for the creativity and fun photo-editing time, but it’s emotionally more intense than other platforms. I have to want to go a little deeper when I’m writing a mini-essay as a caption. I’ve only been posting once a month or so lately because I just haven’t had it in me. Twitter I find more light, more fun. It’s easier to engage for 1-3 minutes and check back out again. Facebook, almost all my participation is in groups. I rarely post to my own timeline; I’m more interested to see what’s going on with other writers. 

    Are there any social media secrets you’d like to share? 

    I think a lot of writers building platform place a high value on posting or advertising themselves and underestimate how powerful listening is. Just chiming in with congratulations or support or answering a question is a great way to interact. I used to be a very envious person, and by actively practicing joy for others’ achievements, I’ve gotten rid of a lot of that feeling. Now, instead of “why didn’t I get that thing?!?!” I get to experience “Yay, I told her about that residency!” or “Wow, I know how hard she’s worked to get that publication!”

    Listening is an underrated way to build an author platform, but I find it very energizing. You’re one of the co-hosts of the Writer’s Bridge. What would you like authors to know about this organization? 

    Platform-building goes far beyond social media, and we talk about all of it: newsletters, email lists, websites, even the process of querying agents and just plain writing better. An amazing group of writers show up every two weeks—and everyone is welcome—and the networking has really led to a lot of fruitful collaborations. People review each other’s books, they host each other on podcasts, they guest on each other’s Instagram Reels and support each other at real-life events (when those are safe to do). 

    If you could tell readers one thing about building an author platform, what would it be? 

    Being a writer is different than being an influencer. You don’t have to wear cute outfits, or take professional-quality photos, or have ten thousand followers. You also don’t have to share anything you aren’t comfortable sharing and you get to draw your own boundaries. Share your writing voice and connect for real with people

    What are you currently reading?

    I’m really enjoying Charlie Jane Anders’ Never Say You Can’t Survive right now—it’s all about writing through hard times, and I love the chapter titles like “Hold On to Your Anger. It’s a Storytelling Gold Mine” and “How to Tell a Thrilling Story Without Breaking Your Own Heart.” Inspirational and instructional!

    What’s next for you? 

    Next is a three-part webinar series How to Build a Developmental Editing Business through Jane Friedman—we’re going to look at how and why to developmental edit, communicating with clients and getting them excited to revise, and the nuts and bolts of making money as a developmental editor. This is the first time I’ve taught editing as a practice and I’m excited to plan this new class!

    I know it will be a fabulous class! I can’t wait to hear the reviews. 

    You can follow Allison online by clicking on the following links: 

     
    Give your writing life and author platform a boost: buy your copy of Seven Drafts today then sign up for the Writer’s Bridge.

    Don’t want to miss another post? Sign up for my newsletter

     

     

    The secret to building an effective author platform is something you might have overlooked.

    The secret to building an effective author platform is something you might have overlooked.

    This week, I move into my new home. 

    The box towers in my house have grown so large, my cat, Miss Foxy, recently gave me a look that said, “Your box kingdom has exceeded my ability to guard it.” 

    Like my kitty, I’m ready for a return to normal life. 

    Living in transition makes it easy to see why author platforms are so daunting. 

    How do you get everything done when your to-do list never ends? 

    The answer is simple, <<First Name>>. 

    Work smarter rather than harder.  

    So far, we’ve talked about online platforms and how to write your way to a bigger audience.

    Now let’s capitalize on what you’re already doing. 

    Speaking 

    You don’t have to wear a microphone to call yourself a speaker. Think of the people you’re already in front of—students, spiritual communities, clubs and volunteer organizations, other writers.  

    To work smarter rather than harder: 

    • Make a list of your official and unofficial speaking gigs.
    • Try to expand your reach. Could you speak more frequently or on a larger stage?  

     
    To up your game: 

    • Pitch a segment to a podcast.
    • Start a podcast.
    • Sign up for a local reading, Moth, or other storytelling event. 
    • Volunteer to speak at your local library or writing organization. 
    • Pitch a session at a writing conference.

     

    Joining 

    Supporting your community can help you build meaningful relationships with people who might one day become your readers. When joining an organization, there’s no need to promote yourself. If someone asks what you do, tell them you’re a writer, but don’t make it your focus. Instead, find ways to be of service.

    To work smarter rather than harder: 

    • Make a list of the organizations you belong to—start with writing-related groups like book clubs, critique groups, nonprofit writing organizations, then expand your list to include alumni organizations, religious/spiritual/self-help organizations, business organizations, and nonprofit and volunteer organizations. 
    • Assess which organizations align with your passions.  

     
    To up your game: 

    • If you’re a passive member of an organization, could you either leave or become more involved? For example, could you become a reader for a literary magazine or help with an event? 
    • Volunteer to support the causes you write about. Think about the beats I mentioned in last week’s blog post. If you’re looking for inspiration, see Carol Michel’s essay on marketing your book without social media.
    • Support your local independent bookstore. Attend their events and regularly buy their books. I can’t stress how important this is. Local book stores support the local authors they know. Unless you have a big platform, they’re less inclined to help strangers.  

     
    Pass The Torch

    When it comes to teaching, writers frequently think of MFAs and tenure track positions. But Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, started her career teaching free classes in church basements. 

    Guess what? I did the same thing—only I taught free mindful-writing courses at a mental health center. And for those of you who are curious, I don’t have an MFA. 

    To work smarter rather than harder: 

    • Make a list of the ways you’re already teaching others. 
    • See if you can do it at a higher level or for a larger audience. 

     
    To up your game: 

    • Teach a free seminar at your local library, religious organization, or community center. 
    • Volunteer to run a group at your local nonprofit writing center or library. 
    • Volunteer with organizations that mentor young writers like America Reads, or NEAs the Big Read. 
    • Teach skills other than writing—think gardening, building bookshelves, cooking, etc. 
    • Pitch a session at a writing conference.   

     
    Be a Good Human 

    This is probably the easiest and most overlooked way to build your author platform. It’s also the most fulfilling. 

    Get to know the people around you. Ask them questions. Be curious about their answers. See if you can be of service. 

    Above all, treat everyone with kindness and respect. The person you least expect might be integral to your writing career. 

    Being a good human in real life will increase your authenticity online. 

    To work smarter rather than harder: 

    • Make a list of your regular connections. 
    • Ask yourself: How am I lifting these people up? How am I being of service?

     
    To up your game:  

    • Post online about your colleagues’ successes and share their publications.  
    • Write reviews for the books you love. 
    • When possible, attend the readings of the writers you know and admire. 
    • Complete random acts of kindness. 
    • When appropriate, ask cashiers, servers, and others you engage with how they’re doing. Listen to their answers.  

     

    To really work smarter rather than harder, clarify your priorities.  Remember, you don’t have to do everything. In fact, doing a few things well can be more effective than spreading yourself thin. 

    Quitting, setting limits, and saying no are just as important as saying yes. 

    Have some platform or limit-setting questions? Send me an email. 

    In fact, as we end this month, <<First Name>>, tell me something you’re ready to quit so you can say yes to your writing life. 
     

     

    Want to write your way to a bigger author platform? Here’s how.

    Want to write your way to a bigger author platform? Here’s how.

    I planned to finish revising my book by the end of August.

    Then we bought a new house.

    The day I signed the contract my muse said, “Are you kidding me???” then promptly skipped town.  

    I’ve been writing long enough to know that sometimes now is not the time to write. When that happens, the best thing you can do is keep the faith and work on writing adjacent tasks like reading, journaling, and giving others feedback. 

    HippoCamp reignited some of my creative fire. 

    Then I started reading a colleague’s manuscript.

    And low and behold, my muse returned. 

    So, while preparing to move, I’m also writing again. 

    For many of us, working on our projects is our greatest joy.

    But writing can also be a great way to build your author platform. 

    While social media can help you increase your reach, bylines, blogs, and newsletters can help you build a fanbase that might promote your work.

    Bylines

    Bylines include articles, essays, reviews, short stories, and flash pieces you publish in literary journals and news outlets. To maximize your reach, think New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, and Huffington Post as well as glossy magazines like The SunCreative NonfictionMs. MagazineVanity Fair, and Harper’s.  

    These publications signal to agents and editors that your writing has been vetted. If you write literary fiction or nonfiction, publishing in acclaimed literary journals might be a great way to build your platform. But, if you write other forms of creative nonfiction or trade fiction, publishing in outlets with a large digital footprint might be a more effective way to showcase your work. 

    As you write, think about the beats or topics you can mine for material. Most writers should have three. For example, I write about the writing process, mental health (which includes grief), and resilience. 

    Corie Adjmi, author of the short-story collection Life and Other Shortcomings (2020) and The Marriage Box (2022) publishes on women’s issues and the Jewish experience.

    Laura Cathcart Robbins, host of the podcast The Only One in the Room, writes about addiction, Black lives, and biracial relationships. 

    Katie Rose Guest Pryal, author of the Hollywood Lights Series, writes about mental health, disability, and higher education. 

    So what kind of bylines should you aim for? Obviously, publishing within your genre is essential. But, if you’re ready to branch out, op-eds and short essays are great options.  

    Many writers have successfully used Susan Shapiro’s book The Byline Bible to build their list of publications. Marion Roach SmithCreative Nonfiction, and many others teach courses on opinion pieces and personal essays. 

    And guess what? This is something I do too. 

    If you’re interested in building a byline portfolio, my Last Dash to the Finish Line coaching group might be an excellent way to meet that 2021 goal. Send me an email so we can schedule a free 30-minute consultation. 

    Blogs 

    Writers regularly ask me if they should start a blog. Some hope blogging their books will lead to a publishing contract or perhaps a platform that rivals popular bloggers like The Bloggess

    But friends, it ain’t that simple. 

    While blogs are still a viable way to reach your audience, they’re a lot of work. You need to have something valuable to say, and you need to say it one or more times per week. In the beginning, much of that work is thankless. 

    I asked Jane Friedman for her opinion on blogging while preparing this week’s newsletter.  Here’s what she had to say. 

    “Blogging that grows your platform can’t be focused on you and your personal stories. It has to be focused on others and market aware: aware of the community you want to be known in, aware of that community’s problems and obsessions, and aware of your unique position—or voice—in all of that. While blogging can be a wonderful creative outlet and it can be part of a daily writing practice, today’s professional blog is measured by how much you inform or inspire others, not how well you express yourself.”

    If you have a burning desire to blog, take Jane’s upcoming workshop Blogging Strategies that Work in 2021 before you get started. This will help you develop something that matches your efforts with your ability to scale your work. 

    You can also guest blog for established platforms like BrevityHippoCampus Literary Magazine, or other writing blogs that accept guest posts. But don’t limit yourself to blogs about writing. Think about who needs to hear your unique message. For example, if you write about motherhood, guest blog for ScaryMommy or another parenting blog. Same goes for any topic you write about, be it business, mental health, or sports. 

    Newsletters

    While starting a blog might be a gamble, a successful email newsletter is considered the platform golden goose. When done well, an email newsletter can turn followers into super fans who will champion your work. 

    Many authors use newsletters to advertise book launches and upcoming events, but the best newsletters help their audience solve problems and explore their obsessions. 

    Jane Friedman has a great post on email newsletter basics. She also wrote an article on whether to blog or develop an email newsletter and another on what you should know about email newsletters

    If you want to learn about voice-driven writing with a purpose, subscribe to Marie Forleo’s newsletter

    My mission is to help all writers create stories that transform the world. That means ensuring everyone has access to the right tools and the inspiration that turns ideas into finished products. 

    My newsletter is a labor of love that helps me fulfill that mission, but let me be clear, it takes a lot of hard work. I spend three to four hours per week writing, revising, and preparing each post. 

    If you like what you see, there are a few ways you can pay this forward. 

    Tell your friends about my newsletter so they can help me fulfill my mission. Share it on your favorite social media channels. Let followers know I offer giveaways a few times per year and scholarships for my classes. 

    While coming up with your questions and thinking about your reader’s problems and obsessions, don’t forget to write, write, write. And if your muse is on a vacay, keep listening for its return. It will come back to you. Pinky promise. 

     

    Wondering what kind of virtual presence you need? Check this out!

    Wondering what kind of virtual presence you need? Check this out!

    I can’t tell you how good it was to reunite with my writing peeps! 

    At HippoCamp I was able to: 
    See the friends I’ve made over the years.
    Connect with people I’ve met online.
    Have spontaneous conversations without a Zoom screen. 
    Learn, get inspired, and have the chance to share some of my expertise. 

    Oh, and here was one of the greatest gifts: I got to meet some of you. 

    What an absolute treat! 

    I attended so many high-quality sessions with inspirational figures in our field. I can’t wait to tell you all about it in future newsletters. 

    But I want to start this one with a quote shared by Joey Garcia during a session called “What Happens to Your Book in a Newsroom.”

     Your network is who you know.

    Platform is who knows you

    Later that night, I sat in on a Writer’s Bridge session where Allison K. Williams and Ashleigh Renard, broke this down further.

    When writers first approach the concept of platform many dislike it because they see platform building as a transactional “tit-for-tat” way of relating to others. That’s bound to make anyone miserable. A real platform is a bridge between two people. It’s an opportunity to both know others and be known. In these writer’s bridges, you can also serve your community. 

    Just hearing that made me feel better about my platform. 

    As I said in my last post, all you need to do to begin your platform is tell one person you’re a writer. Do that, and someone knows you. 

    But what comes next, depends on your goals. 

    In the coming weeks, I’ll interview some platform divas and emerging authors who can share their platform secrets. 

    But before we get there, I want to talk about the types of platforms you can build. 

    This week, we’ll start with your online presence. 
    Next week, I’ll talk about writing opportunities including bylines, blogs, and newsletters. 
    After that, we’ll discuss all the other ways you can connect with your fellow humans. 

    Okay, let’s talk virtual presence. 

    Author Website 

    If writing is just a hobby, and all you care about is spending your time crafting beautiful sentences, then you don’t necessarily need a website.

    But, if you secretly harbor any publication desires, you need one. And you need to create it well before you query agents or publishers. 

    Think of your website as the virtual warehouse for all the cool stuff you do. It’s a place where agents, publishers, and most importantly readers, can learn who you are and what you’ve written. 

    In the early stages of your writing career, you don’t need to hire a professional. But you do need to buy your domain name. Ideally, this should be your name and not the title of your book.

    To get the 411 on what you need, check out this blog post

    Social Media Accounts 

    If you’re platform resistant, this is probably the header you’ll most likely bristle about. I get it. There are SO many social media platforms. And to top it off, these platforms are always tweaking their algorithms and features which means the learning curve is endless. 

    When it comes to social media, you’ll want to develop a three-pronged approach that includes:  

    • A way to network with other writers, editors, and agents.
    • A way to reach your readers.
    • A way to have fun. 

     
    Do you need to be on all the platforms? Nope. 

    Just pick the one you feel most comfortable with and consistently add content to it. Ideally, your preferred platform should also be the one where your readers hang out. 

    Jane Friedman has a social media hub filled with articles on social media dos and don’ts. You can also attend the free Writer’s Bridge meetings that take place every other week. These live sessions are a great place to learn tricks and tips from some social media experts. And they’re recorded so you can access them later if their live sessions don’t suit your schedule. 

    Here’s a list of the current most popular platforms along with a brief description of what they do.  

    Facebook: This is largely for the over-forty crowd. Most writers are gaining traction by joining Facebook groups. They’re great for networking and connecting with niche interest groups who might become your readers. And, if you build an author page, you can use it to create ads that will help you market your work. 

    Twitter: The average Twitter user is between 25 – 34, though I find lots of writers, editors, and agents hang out there. If brevity is your thing, this might be a great place to network—especially when it comes to finding agents and editors. But to make the most of Twitter, you should tweet multiple times per day.

    YouTube: With an average user age in the mid-twenties, this one’s ideal for reaching younger readers. But, because you can create your own channel, it’s also a great content delivery system. You can create book trailers, interviews and so much more.  Public speaking coach Gigi Rosenberg regularly creates videos to share her content on YouTube. Many end up in her newsletter. 

    Instagram: This largely visual medium—think photos and videos—is a favorite with the under-thirty-four crowd.  Writers frequently include meaty captions for their posts. You can also use hashtags to increase your reach. 

    TikTok: Couple less than sixty-second videos and hashtags and you have TikTok. With an average user of under 25, this is a great place to reach a younger audience. Some authors, like Ashleigh Renard, have capitalized on this platform’s popularity. Read about her successes in this post. 

    Reddit: Reddit is a network of communities you can join for mutual benefit and support. Some of the most engaged users are under thirty. While Reddit isn’t designed for marketing, you can become a trusted source of information on this site by posting regularly and commenting on threads posted by other users. The Subreddits tend to have a narrow focus. You can find ones for survivors of suicide loss, day traders, games, illnesses, and even books. Use them to understand the conversations happening around the subjects you write about.

    Clubhouse: This is an audio-only platform that requires an invitation from a current member.  It’s a great place to learn from celebrities, coaches, and authors, all while sporting your bedhead. Lurk for a while, then create a room. You can even join some of their writing groups.

    Pinterest: If you like bulletin boards, you’ll love Pinterest. It’s a favorite platform for boomers, Gen-Xers, and most of all, Millennials. If your readers fall into these demographics, then Pinterest might be an option for you. There’s even a Pinterest on building an author platform. Go figure!

    Linked-In: Most people think of LinkedIn as a business tool, and largely they would be right. But, if your professional role is linked to your book, setting up an account and sharing your publications there might give you yet one more avenue for connecting with potential readers.

    Phew! That’s a long list. 

    But don’t fall into the trap of thinking you must do all the things all the time. You absolutely don’t. 

    Here are a few guidelines to get you started: 

    1. Choose one to three platforms. 
    2. Create a social media plan and a manageable schedule. 
    3. Make it fun.

    Here’s my current social media plan: 

    • Facebook: I use this one to connect with family and friends and to network in the various groups I belong to.I consider many of these people potential readers. 
    • Twitter: This is where I do most of my literary citizenship. (Think: sharing articles and lifting up other authors) 
    • Instagram: This is also a place where I connect with both writers and readers. Of the three, this is the one I’m still learning to master. 

    My social media diet:

    • A maximum of 15 minutes after my writing time,
    • 15 minutes right before or right after lunch,
    • 15 minutes around 2:30 as a break between client work,
    • 15 minutes at the end of the workday. 

     
    What makes it fun? 
    I love to connect with other authors I know. I also enjoy reading humorous posts. 

     Let me know what you love–or hate–about building a virtual presence.  Have any tricks and tips for us? I’d love to hear from you. 

    Enjoy the last few weeks of summer and keep writing on! 

     

    Building an author platform? These three concepts will help you maximize your efforts.

    Building an author platform? These three concepts will help you maximize your efforts.

    This Saturday, August 14, 2021, I’ll present a breakout session titled “Creating a Bird’s-Eye View of Your Book” at the HippoCamp Conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As a  four-time HippoCamper, I’m a huge fan of this event. 

    The conference was supposed to be a jubilant homecoming celebration filled with hugs—oh the hugs!—meet-and-greets, and long talks over meals where writers can network. Sadly, the Delta variant has put the kibosh on the touchy-feely aspects of our weekend meeting. 

    I’ll arrive vaxed, masked, and armed with hand sanitizer and the results of my first-ever COVID test. 

    While I’ll certainly do some socially distanced mingling, it won’t be the same. Our world has changed. This affects not just our gatherings, but how we build our author platforms. 

    Last week, I defined author platform

    But how do you know if you have one? 

    If you’ve told one person you’re a writer, you have an author platform. It’s that simple. 

     The two questions you need to ask yourself are how big do you want it to be, and how would you like to grow it? 

    So far, I’ve received some excellent questions from our writing community. 

    Over the next two months, my goal is to help you:  

    • understand what a vibrant platform entails, 
    • discover your values, interests, and the skills you can employ,
    • and find out-of-the-box ways to grow yours with the fewest internal grumbles.  

    Let’s begin by shedding a few platform myths that might be holding you back. 

    Myth One: A big publisher will market my book. All I need to do is write my masterpiece. 

    Truth: Unless you’re the darling of your publishing house or a big client who’s a proven seller, it’s likely you’re going to spend a significant portion of your time (and maybe some money) to market your stories. And you have a vested interest in doing this. Poor sales for your first book can make it harder to sell a second one.  

    Myth Two: Platforms are just for creative nonfiction writers.

    Truth: While the size of your platform matters most for creative nonfiction writers, authors from all genres need to understand how they’re going to reach their readers. For example, I know a very talented poet who published her chapbook through a small press. In order for her book to qualify for a print run, she had to obtain 50 pre-orders. How do you get preorders? Platform. 

    Myth Three: I don’t need a virtual presence to be successful.

    Truth: While there are many ways to build a vibrant offline platform, you’ll still need a virtual presence. I’ll share more about what’s essential in a future post. 

    Myth Four: To build my virtual presence, I need to be online all the time.

    Truth: You’ll need to find consistent ways to nurture your online presence, but platform success doesn’t require you to become an Internet superstar or set up a webcam in your home. 

    Myth Five: If I self-publish, I don’t need a platform.

    Truth: The difference between a self-published book and a traditionally published book is who’s taking on the risk. If you’re the one financing the deal—engaging editors, hiring cover artists, paying for print runs, covering all the marketing costs—it’s in your best interest to have a sound platform and marketing plan. Failure to do so can lead to disappointing sales numbers—like less than 100 sales across the lifetime of your book. 

    Now that we’ve gotten the myths out of the way, let’s talk about a few key concepts you need to consider. 

    Authenticity

    The number one platform killer is fear. We fear we have nothing to say or that no one will listen. While it’s possible to overshare or make mistakes that require course corrections, most platforms are built through trial and error as we build our courage and learn to become our authentic platform selves. 

    To do this we must capitalize on our interests, talents, and skills. 

    At the end of last week’s newsletter, I suggested you answer a few questions. Click here if you forgot to fill them out. Once you’re done, it’s time to move on to the next concept. 

    Effort

    Effective platforms are built on sustained effort. That means the creator frequently hangs out in spaces where readers can find them—whether that’s attending the readings of the poets in your area, speaking at conferences and teaching webinars, or belonging to specific social media groups.

    As a platform builder with limited time and competing priorities, you want to focus on platform-building activities that align with your passions, skills, and talents so you can have fun as you build authentic relationships with potential readers. Once you know what those activities are, categorize them by effort and potential reach. While it’s likely you’ll need to engage in occasional high-effort activities, balance them with tasks that require less energy. 

    Here’s a chart that illustrates my point. 

     High EffortLow Effort  
    High Reach Delivering a webinar to 250 peopleWriting a successful Instagram story with 3% engagement
    Low Reach Delivering an out-of-town reading for 5 peopleWriting a tweet no one reads

    Classes, presentations, and speaking engagements can demonstrate you’re a subject-matter expert and trusted member of the community. While they’re certainly worth the investment, they frequently require large time commitments. Most instructors complete 3 – 5 hours of prep for every hour they teach. The typical prep for a webinar or conference breakout session is 10 – 15 hours, though 20 – 25 hours is not uncommon. And that doesn’t account for travel time or potential days away from the office. 

    Scale 

    For some people, the confessional nature of social media is a major turnoff.

    Here are some things people have said to me:

    “I hate taking selfies.”

    “I don’t want to share what I had for dinner or create videos filmed from my bed, just so someone will read my damn book”

    “But it’s easier to connect with real people. Online, I’ve got nothing to say.” 

    I hear you. I get it. And I promise you don’t have to share your dinner with the world. 

    But, you do need to recognize that the world has changed.The in-person events we once relied on aren’t guaranteed to expand your reach. Plus, even if you’re more comfortable with building in-person connections, think about how you search for information.

    Whether it’s real estate or a book recommendation, it’s likely you’re Googling it. 

    The effort required to reach an offline audience is one of the reasons successful platform builders try to scale their reach as quickly as possible. It’s why many speakers opt for high-capacity webinars and keynotes over small classes with a workshop component. 

    It’s also the reason why so many people choose to build their platforms online. 

    In a virtual world, COVID is less likely to cause problems. And if an event gets canceled, you might feel disappointed, but you won’t fret over whether your airfare and hotel will be reimbursed.

    IRL, fire marshals can post building limits, but on the Internet, the capacity is endless.  

    While it can feel scary to post your first tweet or Instagram story, the effort required is relatively low and so are the stakes. You can try on several identities and voices to see what works best. If something isn’t effective, you can drop it.

    Next week, we’ll take a closer look at the types of platforms you can build and how you can use them to your advantage.

    In the meantime, do you have a burning platform question? It’s likely others have it too. Send me an email so I can add it to my list. 

    While you consider your platform, keep writing on. 

     

    Do you cringe when you hear the words “author platform?” You’re not alone.

    Do you cringe when you hear the words “author platform?” You’re not alone.

    Sometimes I cringe when I hear the term “author platform.” 

    Feelings I associate with it include: 

    • Stress
    • Obligation
    • Fatigue
    • Overwhelm

    Those feelings typically arise when I think about my social media accounts, or to be precise, when I neglect my social media accounts, which I confess has recently happened. 

    If you’re now thinking but don’t you coach writers on this topic? Shouldn’t this be something you’ve mastered??

    Why yes, I do coach writers on this topic. 

    And I’ll tell you what I tell them. 

    Author platforms are continual works in process. They’re created and managed by human beings with complex lives and competing priorities. While some people are lucky enough to hire assistants or publicists to help with their online accounts, most of us do the grunt work ourselves. 

    As a platform builder, I frequently make calculated decisions about my writing life. 

    I have to balance writing and doing the work that gets my writing noticed. 

    Sometimes I get behind on paid work and need to trim things down to meet client deadlines. 

    I must choose between spending time with friends and family in real life (IRL) or sharing tidbits with my online peeps. 

    And for me, vacations need to be vacations from technology and not opportunities to Instagram—or at least they do according to my values. 

    To be honest, I have mixed feelings about social media. 

    It’s a great way to network, promote your work, and connect, but it can also become a massive comparison-laden time suck that can lead to anxiety, depression, and low motivation.

    That can lead to a few hours on the couch, crying “Why me??” while the pint of Ben and Jerry’s you’re holding melts. 

    Still, many writers feel like their social media accounts are where they cultivate their brand. But an author platform encompasses so much more than clever online posts. While my social media accounts currently feel a little like overgrown lawns, I’ve spent the summer teaching classes, presenting at conferences, meeting with clients, and drafting essays. All of these things are part of my author platform. 

    Because I know I’m not the only one who groans at the thought of self-promotion, I want to talk about how you can improve your platform—even if you’re ambivalent about social media. 

    Let’s start with a definition. 

    An author platform includes all the ways you can reach readers—from your author website and social media accounts to articles, essays, and stories you publish, as well as anything else that gives you an opportunity to say, “Hey world, I’ve got this cool thing you can read. Come check it out.”

    This could include classes you teach, presentations you deliver, or associations you’re affiliated with. And let’s not forget your email newsletter. 

    All authors, no matter their genre, need an author platform; however, for nonfiction writers, the size of your platform can affect your chances of getting a book published. 

    A great author platform is broad in scope and leverages your strengths. When done well, it’s not a time suck or a burden. In fact, it should be fun to work on, and it should help you authentically engage with other people.

    Throughout the month of August, we’re going to look at the types of platforms you can build, the importance of authentic engagement, and the role IRL networking plays in building your platform. 

    Before we begin this adventure, I’d like you to answer a few questions: 

    • What are you passionate about? 
    • What’s your preferred way of connecting with other people? 
    • How much time can you devote to your writing life? 
    • How do you want to spend it?
    • What’s your current definition of author platform? 
    • What parts do you excel at?
    • What parts make you cringe? 
    • What questions do you have about this topic?

    If you’re intimidated by this topic, pay close attention to this month’s newsletter series. And, send me your questions so I can try to answer them in my upcoming posts. 

    My hope is that by the end of the month, you’ll recognize all the ways you’re already building a platform, and then you’ll engage more authentically with it. 

    All stories contain a certain architecture. To understand your story, learn how to “beat it out.”

    All stories contain a certain architecture. To understand your story, learn how to “beat it out.”

    Last weekend I had the privilege of speaking at the 44th annual Compassionate Friends Conference. For those of you unfamiliar with this organization, Compassionate Friends supports parents, grandparents, siblings, and others as they grieve. 

    The conference was an opportunity to bear witness to some heartfelt grief stories, share my own, and immerse myself in the conversations people are having around loss, acceptance, and letting go. 

    Grief is a story we live. Sometimes the pain is so profound, it’s like crawling through a reedy swamp. The going is messy and slow; it’s hard to see what’s ahead. 

    This lived story has an architecture that’s frequently represented by stages or seasons. There are common experiences that happen during the early, middle, and later stages. Along the way, people grow. 

    When you’re hurting, it can be difficult to know what stage you’re in or how to make it to the next one. 

    While I would never conflate grief with storytelling, writers frequently experience similar struggles. The process of writing a story can feel overwhelming. We can get so attached to the words on the page or so mired in what they mean, that our revision process feels slow and messy, and it can be hard to see what’s ahead. 

    As writers, we can turn to Blake Snyder and Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need for support. 

    So far, we’ve talked about loglines and building the perfect character

    “Let’s Beat It Out!” is likely Snyder’s most popular chapter. In it, he discusses the three-act structure (which he describes as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis) and then shares his invaluable beat sheet where he maps out the moments every story needs. He even gives you page numbers so you’ll know precisely where certain elements should occur. 

    The page numbers he refers to are based on the screenplay, which is always one hundred ten pages. You can simply extrapolate based on the size of your manuscript. 

    Because I want you to read this invaluable chapter, I’m only going to talk about one of its many important points: The Six Things that Need to Be Fixed. 

    The first act of a story establishes the ordinary world. This is the world before the big, life-altering event that catapults your character onto their quest. Act one always ends on a plot point that’s frequently called the point of no return. 

    In The Fellowship of the Ring, the point of no return is the moment when Gandalf tells Frodo his uncle’s ring is the One Ring forged by the evil Lord Sauron.

    In The Hunger Games, it’s when the game begins. 

    In The Glass Castle, it’s when Jeanette Walls’s family arrives in Welch, West Virginia. 

    Most writers struggle with the first act. Some find the revision process downright painful. They worry about what to include and how much backstory to share. 

    That’s where Snyder’s Six Things that Need Fixing come in handy. 

    Snyder’s phrase “stands for the laundry list you must show—repeat SHOW—the audience of what is missing in the hero’s life. Like little bombs, these Six Things that Need Fixing, these character tics and flaws, will be exploded later in the script, turned on their heads, and cured.” 

    He uses the Tom Hanks movie Big as his first example. At the beginning of the movie, our main character, Josh Baskin, isn’t tall enough to ride a certain ride. He’s awkward around girls and he sees being a kid as a total drag. 

    The point of no return occurs when Josh’s wish to be big is granted. 

    At first this is grand, but eventually, those things that need fixing show up in hilarious ways.

    In the final act, those six things are what get resolved.

    He realizes being big isn’t as great as he originally thought. Even adults struggle with girls, and while adults might be able to do what they want, that freedom comes with responsibility. 

    Snyder maps additional movies so you can see their beats and how each screenwriter tackles his concepts. 

    These beats can work for all prose genres, including memoir.

    If you’re struggling with how to tackle your opening, or you’re trying to revise a first act that’s too long (psst: if it’s over 70 pages, it’s probably too long!), read the chapter then ask yourself the following questions:

    What six things need fixing in my main character’s life? 

    What act-one scenes illustrate these problems? 

    If more than one scene illustrates the same problem, which one is essential?  

    While some scenes plant an important seed that blossoms later in the story, many scenes that serve the same purpose can be deleted. 

    Cutting those scenes might feel painful at first, but your story will be stronger, which will increase your reader’s satisfaction. 

    It’s hard to believe, but we’ve reached summer’s halfway point. I’m heading to the beach for a little R & R, so I’ll see you soon. 

    While I’m gone, consider what stories you’re currently living out. 

    How do they impact your writing life and the stories you tell? 

    How are you caring for yourself as you live them? 

    Heroes are only as strong as their urges. Learn what can make a good protagonist great.

    Heroes are only as strong as their urges. Learn what can make a good protagonist great.

    Over the weekend I went to an old-school arcade filled with the video games I played as a kid—Ms. Pacman, Galaga, Kangaroo. For twelve bucks, I could fight as many arcade bosses as I wanted and play pinball until my pointer finger ached. 

    Walking into that steamy, dark room was like stepping back into my childhood. 

    Only this time, I’d entered my kid version of heaven. 

    Be still my Gen-Xer heart! 

    My adult version of heaven is a story that works. And for around twelve bucks, Blake Snyder is showing me how to make that happen.

    Last week, we explored the ingredients in a good logline, and why it might be better to create one before you write.

    Once you’ve finalized your logline, your next task is to figure out who the story is about.

    Snyder says, “a market-tested logline proves you have a story, but the hero is what makes the story work better.” 

    Your hero, or protagonist, is the person who “faces the most conflicts and has the longest way to go emotionally.” They’re also the person who needs to change the most. 

    Snyder says readers “want you to tell them stories about characters who

    • they can identify with, 
    • they can learn from,
    • they have compelling reasons to follow,
    • they believe deserve to win,
    • and have stakes that ring true for them.”

    Once you know who this person is, you need to give them a dramatic need. Snyder’s advice: go primal. “Think survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, or fear of death.” Because “primal urges get our attention,” he encourages you to make your stakes primal too. 

    As part of his explanation, Snyder uses the logline for the movie Ride Along. “A risk-averse teacher plans on marrying his dream girl but must first accompany his overprotective future brother-in-law—a cop—on the ride from hell.”  

    This pitch is double primal. The teacher wants to marry his fiancé (sex) but first, he has to survive a life-threatening test (death). 

    When it comes to who you “cast” in your story, Snyder says we connect with characters we can relate to. In his list, he includes “husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, and ex-boyfriends and girlfriends.” That doesn’t mean your characters and stories must fit this mold but consider the roles your characters play.

    For example, if a boy hero befriends a dragon, is the dragon a buddy, surrogate parent, sibling, or something else?  

    Snyder says it’s also helpful to apply some Jungian archetypal roles to your characters. Archetypes are images and themes that arise from the collective unconscious. They show up in the dreams, literature, and art of most cultures. 

    Psychoanalyst Carl Jung identified twelve archetypes that show up in literature. You can find them here.

    You can also study the works of Joseph Campbell, who wrote extensively about the hero’s journey and its archetypes.

    Inspired by Jung and Campbell, Snyder created his own list of archetypes for the cinema

    While Snyder makes some important points in this chapter, his archetypes and the “cast of characters we related to” focus solely on traditional gender roles and assignments that are a bit outdated. They don’t take into account the diversity of experiences readers might have and they might not represent yourreaders.

    For instance, Snyder talks about Hollywood’s obsession with youth and encourages writers to cast young, “demographically pleasing” characters (whatever that last term means), because young people are the ones generating box office sales.

    When it comes to book sales, that’s not always true. 

    While the average age of readers for genres like YA and horror is fairly young, the average science fiction, fantasy, romance, and memoir reader is in their mid-forties. That’s why it’s important to understand the readers of your genre. 

    Instead of canceling Snyder, I encourage you to read his work with a grain of salt.

    Use his book to find out what’s been cinematically successful and why, then if it speaks to you, use your own writing to successfully turn those archetypes and roles on their heads. 

    So, what do you know about your characters? 

    What are their primal needs? 

    What roles do they play? 

    What archetypes can you come up with to augment or counter Snyder’s list? 

    Whether the sun is shining in your part of the world, or you’re enduring the heart of winter, take time to play and celebrate your life.  

    After you’ve found a little joy, return to your writing desk.

    Your stories are waiting for you. 

    Do the words logline or elevator pitch make you cringe? Use Blake Snyder’s three ingredients to create a winning pitch.

    Do the words logline or elevator pitch make you cringe? Use Blake Snyder’s three ingredients to create a winning pitch.

    What’s your book/essay/short story/project about? 

    This is the question authors are most frequently asked. 

    But how do you distill art into a few lines—especially when you’re mid-project?

    Most writers, including myself, tighten their neck scarves when hearing the words logline or elevator pitch. The stakes can feel so high—especially if you’ve worked for years to create something.

    To keep the stakes low, Blake Snyder, belated author of Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, believed writers should create their loglines before writing their first word. 

    Whether you agree with him or not, learning to craft a logline or elevator pitch is an important skill all writers must learn. Effectively summarizing your work will help you understand your story and spend less time awkwardly rambling to fellow writers and agents.  

    You don’t need to become a screenwriter to learn from Save the Cat! In fact, I encourage all fiction writers and memoirists to study screenwriting. It helps you develop lean, page-turning prose. 

    According to Save the Cat! all pitches must contain irony, a compelling mental picture, and a killer title.  

    Irony

    When summarizing your story, think about the protagonist’s main conflict and the stakes for failing to achieve their goal. Ask yourself the following questions: What does my character want above all else? How do they change? What are they afraid of? 

    You don’t have to stuff everything into your logline, but the stakes and conflict should be baked into your sentence. 

    Here are a few movie examples Snyder shares in his book.

    “A newly married couple must spend Christmas Day at each of their four divorced parents’ homes—4 Christmases”

    “A just-hired employee goes on a company weekend and soon discovers someone’s trying to kill him—The Retreat”

    After identifying your conflict and stakes, your next job is to look for irony or a major plot twist we wouldn’t ordinarily expect. 

    According to Snyder, “irony gets [your] attention…. it hooks you with interest.” 

    Here’s another one of Snyder’s examples:  

    “Businessman falls in love with the hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend—Pretty Woman” 

    To build irony into your plot, ask yourself the following questions: 

    • What does the audience expect to happen?
    • What wouldn’t they see coming? 
    • What reversal could I insert into a key plot point that capitalizes on my audience’s expectations? 

     
     If your current draft is low on irony, crafting a logline with a plot twist can help you create a more satisfying narrative arc.

    Struggling to come up with ideas? Check out this blog post on twelve ironic situations.

    Compelling Mental Picture 

    According to Snyder, “the second most important element that a good longline has is that you must be able to see a whole movie in it. Like Proust’s madeleine, a good logline, once said, blossoms in your brain.”

    He uses the pitch for Blind Date as an example. “She’s the perfect woman—until she has a drink.” 

    Even if you don’t like the premise, I bet you can imagine the potential hijinks. 

    As you create your pitch, think about how you can establish a situation that creates a visual image that blossoms in the reader’s head. 

    A Killer Title 

    The last ingredient for a good logline is a killer title. Snyder says the logline and title are “the one-two punch that makes a good sale.” A good title should “nail the concept without being so on the nose it’s stupid.” 

    Here are a few examples: 

    Legally Blonde
    The Silence of the Lambs
    Fast and Furious
    Se7en

    If the story has already been written, search your document for the most compelling lines. Many great titles have been found inside their manuscripts. If you’re working strictly from a logline, make a list of contenders then pitch them to friends and see which one fits Snyder’s definition. But don’t let yourself get stuck. You can always change the title once your project has been written. 

    Synder considered the world his test market and regularly pitched coffee shop patrons while waiting for his latte. As he shared his ideas, he paid attention to the listener’s reactions. Wide eyes and questions, he had a winner.  Yawns or shifty looks, he moved on to his next pitch.

    If cold pitching in a coffee shop sounds daunting, consider attending a writing conference. Conference attendees are nice people who will be genuinely interested in hearing about your work. They won’t shun you for a bad pitch. Instead, they’ll ask questions that help you devise a better one. Plus, listening to other writers’ loglines can serve as inspiration.  

    If you’re interested in a couple of great conferences, consider HippoCamp or the James River Writers Conference. You can also check out AWP’s conference directory to see what’s happening in your area. 

    Because loglines take practice, creating them for books and movies you love can help you build the skills needed to create your own. 

    And, if you don’t have any works in progress, Snyder has some great suggestions. 

    Here’s an exercise from the chapter titled “What Is It?”: 

    “Pick a drama, thriller, or horror film and turn it into a comedy. Example: Funny Christine – The haunted dream car of a teenage boy that ruins his life now becomes a comedy when the car starts giving him dating advice.” 

     If you’ve purchased the book, try some of his exercises then pitch me one of your ideas. I’d love to see what you come up with.

    Who knows—the outcome might lead to a new project.

    If you’ve spent time in the logline-writing trenches, what obstacles did you face? 

    If you’ve successfully completed one, what advice do you have for other writers?  

    And, if you’re feeling unmotivated right now, you’re not alone. Burnout is currently rampant. Take time to step away from your work and your computer screen. Rest. Find unique ways to enjoy your days and trust that your writing life will be there when you’re ready to reconnect with it. 

     Need a quick pick me up? Check out NPR’s Joy Generator
     
     

    How to Rewire Your Brain and Your Writing Experiences

    How to Rewire Your Brain and Your Writing Experiences

    On Saturday, my husband and I made our annual trek up to Seamans’ Orchard. I never tire of their spectacular mountain views or their berries. 

    Each year, we pick around twenty pounds of fruit then scarf down as much as we can. The rest ends up in our freezer.

    Halfway through our berry picking, a family arrived. The mother and her four-year-old daughter claimed the row in front of me. The father and baby walked the row just beyond them. I love listening to the reactions children have when picking berries for the first time, so I cocked my ear in their direction. 

    The little girl scampered along the blueberry bushes and called to her sister “tater” whenever she found a “blue one.” She delighted in all the “samples” she found.

    Apparently, she was also a big fan of farting. Every few minutes she excitedly asked if anyone was ready to let out a stinker. 

    I admired her confidence and easy joy. She reminded me that sometimes life is that simple. 

    You pick a berry, eat it, and smile. 

    Brené Brown says joy is the most vulnerable emotion. It requires us to completely let go.

    When life gets difficult, letting go can feel dangerous. Afraid to let down our guard, we armor up, hoping to prevent future pain. But that never works. 

    Wherever we go, life follows. 

    Anne Lamott calls earth a forgiveness school. 

    If she’s right, then painful events are our teachers. 

    Some faith traditions talk about the power of spiritual discomfort and how dis-ease fuels our desires and dreams. Along the journey toward something better, we grow. In this way, pain is our ally. 

    But it doesn’t have to dominate our experiences. 

    I’m currently reading the memoir Swing by Ashleigh Renard. Toward the end of the book, the narrator starts writing love letters to herself. In them, she re-envisions her experiences. Last month I finished a class that included a similar practice. 

    The instructor said writing new endings for our experiences is as effective as experiencing a different outcome. Both create new neural networks. In fact, the brain doesn’t know the difference between a rewrite and a new event. 

    In other words, my graduate school mentor was right. We can’t change the past, but we can change the story we tell about it. 

    During this month’s newsletter series, I’ve talked about the importance of recommitting to your whysharing your work for the fun of it, and giving yourself permission to share your first draft work.

    Here’s my final invitation: write a love letter to yourself. 

    Think back on a writing challenge you’ve faced, whether it’s a rejection, writer’s block, or a nasty thing your asshole internal editor said. Write the original version so the story no longer lives in your head. Then rewrite it so the outcome is positive. 

    Here’s my rewrite of The Doozy I mentioned at the beginning of the month.

    Dear Lisa, 

    What an engaging read! I see how hard you’ve worked to turn this painful experience into art. Your grief is palpable, and yet it’s tempered by a healthy dose of humor. I laughed out loud when reading about some of your character’s antics. And boy do I love Klaus! 

    I’d like to partner with you as we prepare this story for publication. I think it’s one of many books you’ll write across your career, which I’d like to represent. 

    Sincerely, 

    Agent who loves your writing 

    See? It really is that simple. 

    What would you like to rewrite? 

    What will it take for you to try this experiment? 

    After you’ve re-envisioned your experience, send me an email, and let me know how it feels.

    I’d love to hear about the new neural networks you created. 

    You and your writing are worth the effort.

    Keep writing on! 

    Procrastination can sneak up on you. Break the cycle by sharing with other writers in this unique way.

    Procrastination can sneak up on you. Break the cycle by sharing with other writers in this unique way.

    Two days ago, I bought a new bathing suit. 

    I’d kept the last one until it dry rotted. 

    I know. 

    Ew. 

    I hate shopping in general. Bathing suit shopping exists in a level of hell that includes Chuck E. Cheese, ingrown toenails, and organizing closets. 

    The dressing room lights bring out The Adams Family in my skin. 

    The funhouse mirrors reveal every flaw. 

    It seems like most suits have some weird ruffle or thing that’s probably going to chafe or dig into my skin. 

    So, I avoid this nightmare until it’s clear my old suit is done. 

    Sometimes we treat our important writing projects the same way.

     We fill our writing calendars with “legit” work like easy-to-publish essays, work projects, or classes to beef up our skills. Sometimes we workshop our friend’s stories because they need us. Or we churn out blog posts. 

    Being told our work is less than stellar or entering a high-stakes part of the writing process like finishing a long project, querying, or preparing to go on submission can cause a spike in our tactical avoidance maneuvers. 

    How can you tell the difference between legit work and procrastination? 

    When you’re in balance, you prioritize appropriately. 

    When you’re procrastinating, you feel an urgent need to work on a certain project but believe there’s too much else to do.

    Most of the projects on your must-do lists are for other people or they’re lower on your if-I-were-to-die-tomorrow priority list. 

    But there are things you can do to break this cycle. 

    Last week, I shared a piece I wrote for The Keepthings. The week before, I talked about the importance of persevering.

    This week, I want you to lower your project’s stakes by sharing some shitty first drafts with other writers. Schedule a gathering IRL or on Zoom. Set a timer for twenty minutes. Then write. No editing. Definitely no crossing things out. When time’s up, read what you’ve written to the group. Give each other positive feedback using the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) Method. 

    I teach entire classes based on this method. 

    During these sessions, writers experience the power of sharing raw and vulnerable first-draft work. Many discover the sneaky ways their internal editors lie to them. They leave with a sense of confidence and rekindle their creative joy. 

    I worked in a group like this for seven years. Most of the pieces created during these sessions were like sandcastles at high tide. Flipping the page washed the idea’s power away. But several of my published pieces came from these meetings. 

    The process taught me that showing up is all we need to do. 

    The rest will work itself out. 

    Last week I found myself choosing “legit” work over my memoir. 

    I soon discovered that fear had amped my procrastination up to eleven.  

    So, I scheduled a meditative writing session with a group of my favorite peeps. 

    As soon as the meeting was on my calendar, I got back to work. 

    Often, we give the experiences we fear—the rejections, the iterations that aren’t quite right, the moments of discouragement—too much power.  

    But like bathing suit shopping, they’re survivable. 

    Trying again and again in a low-stakes environment can stamp this lesson onto your bones. 

    It took nine tries to find the right bathing suit. But I bought one.

    Completing that task freed my mental energy to focus on more valuable things, like my memoir. 

    What do you hate doing? 

    How do you avoid your most important writing projects? 

    What helps you get back on track? 

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